A few months ago I wrote a post in which I claimed to be ‘leaving Brighton forever’ or something to that effect. That was, of course, groundless melodrama. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have been resurfacing in Brighton almost every week since then like a particularly obstinate piece of seaweed. Nonetheless, I’m now preparing to move to the other end of Britain and so wanted to write the place a little not-really-goodbye note. I wanted to write something of a psychogeographical (whatever that means) account of the place rather than a dry architectural catalogue, so I hope any readers will forgive the lack of factual rigour and technical detail in the coming paragraphs. Further, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive overview of Brighton, just a brief nose around a couple of its more interesting corners.
I’ll begin where most visitors to Brighton begin (and have begun since 1840): Brighton Station. This enchanting building, at once sombre and fanciful, is one of Brighton’s most delightful structures, and remains a welcome point of entry (or reentry) to the place. It feels like an old Brightonian friend, a resident in the city for many years and staunch Albion fan, always prepared to welcome you with a grin and the suggestion of a pint as you step off the train to visit.
Architecturally, Brighton Station is a mixture of Gothic flight-in-stone (or in this case, flight-in-wrought-iron) grandeur and serious, quasi-civic industrial solidity. Sturdy brick walls adorned with blind arches make up the base of the structure combining efforts with a series of iron colonnades to hold up spectacular rows of pointed arches, on top of which is draped a ceiling of gently curving glass. Baroque wrought-iron decoration is scattered discreetly about, ornate but restrained in a mid-nineteenth-century way. The resulting sensation is a delightful collision: placid, airy spacious calm on the one hand and the palpable sense of onrushing Victorian modernity on the other. Such a collision of relaxation and speed is an intoxicating mixture, and one which few other British railway stations (though there are some – York is an example) are able to achieve.
Leaving the station (perhaps with a measure of reluctance), the visitor is presented with the apparently infinite expanse of Queen’s Road, stretching out towards the sea like a red carpet. This road is essentially a series of undulations rolling resolutely southwards, meaning that it feels more like a rollercoaster or a particularly rough patch of ocean than a thoroughfare (though the abundance of traffic is a sobering reminder otherwise). There is not much to be struck by along the first half of this road, an admittedly varied but pedestrian mixture of late-Victorian ornament, smugly ‘referential’ postmodernism and the whiff of neoliberal regenerationism (freshly planted saplings and chrome benches). At its mid-point, however, just where it is intersected by North Road, the place suddenly hits you over the head with a violent, striking architectural spectacle: a quasi-aggressive cluster of hulking Brutalist monoliths. The easternmost of these three structures is perhaps the most dramatic: two rectilinear cuboids (one an office block, the other a car park) conjoined in the shape of a T, appearing from above like a church shorn of its chancel. These two crouch menacingly at the top of a hill, looming over the rows of comparatively humble Victorian dwellings and shops like a pair of golems in a display of uncompromising, thrilling architectural drama seldom paralleled anywhere in the South East, save perhaps Portsmouth or Southampton. Neighbouring this is a slightly smaller building, originally designed as a church judging from the concrete crucifix emblazoned on its front. This irregularly massed concrete jumble is a little less menacing – it is partly clad in inoffensive terracotta tiles – but its dogged asymmetry provides welcome relief from the monotony of bay window after bay window. Completing the triumvirate is another pair of colossal rectilinear cuboids, stretching with horizontal aplomb down Queen’s Road, brash in its 1960s newness, with a couple of walls clad in knapped flint as a subtle nod to geographical context. All these buildings are, of course, poorly maintained (such is the fate of an architecture that has been unfairly maligned as both the source and result of almost every social and political ill since the 1970s), but as Jonathan Meades remarked on the subject of high-rise apartments, ‘you don’t buy a car and never get it serviced’, and with some restorative care these buildings could one day become minor Brighton landmarks (if my naïve optimism is to have its way). I love these buildings for their sheer absurdity, their total strangeness, like the embattled wrecks of crude alien spacecraft. I hope they will survive the next twenty years, though I suspect I’m among the minority in that hope.
From here, bypass the bland monstrosity of the Churchill Square Shopping Centre and you’ll find yourself on West Street, a street which it is impossible to walk down past 8pm without having flyers for club nights with names like ‘SMACK’ or ‘VISION’ thrust in your face. It has little of architectural interest save for some vaguely remarkable Art Deco, a coolly Corbusian Wetherspoons named ‘The Brighthelm’ and the 19th century Gothic Revival church of St. Paul – of Caen stone clad in knapped flint with a delightfully dramatic wooden belfry at the top of its tower, in spirit more Bruges than Brighton. Otherwise it’s the usual central Brighton mix of slightly precarious 19th century baroque and late 90s/early noughties ‘pseudomodern Blairboxes’, in Owen Hatherley’s memorable phrase.
Arriving at the South end of West Street (sorry) and turning one’s head to the right, however, furnishes the viewer with a series of architectural oddities, displayed along the seafront like exhibits in a giant museum. First in this series is ‘Kingswest’, opened in 1965 as an entertainment complex and now serving as the home to the ‘Pryzm’ nightclub and a branch of ODEON cinema. It is a truly odd but strangely compelling thing – obstinately horizontal, like a giant paving slab, while around the edges of its roof bristle rows of metal teeth, like the serried hulls of a fleet of battleships. It appears for all the world like a fort, as though Napoleon had threatened to invade England in the late 1960s rather than the early 19th century.
Neighbouring Kingswest is a more conventional piece of Brutalism in the form of The Brighton Centre, unremarkable in the grand scheme of 1960s concrete but with its appearance like the beached hulk of a World War II-era floating dock it breaks up the stucco-clad façade of King’s Road with welcome gravitas, along with its jagged neighbour. Completing the spectacle of this portion of Brighton’s seafront is the late-nineteenth century Metropole Hotel, a terracotta brick-clad spectacle of round-arched neo-Byzantinisms and striated brick, which receives a reference in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’: “Unreal City / Under the brown fog of a winter noon / Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant / Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants / C.i.f. London: documents at sight, / Asked me in demotic French / To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a week-end at the Metropole”. Poetry aside, in its refusal to be painted white or cream the Metropole interrupts the seafront with a certain vitality (and the seafront at Brighton is in dire need of a little architectural interruption).
To the unstable pebbles of the beach itself now, past the rows of man-made caverns erected in service of the now long-dead fishing industry which was once the reason for Brighton’s existence, the remains of the West Pier jutting out of the water like the skeleton of a beached whale in one corner of your vision, the winking, whirling lights of the Palace Pier (now simply Brighton Pier) on the other. The sea! Finally the sea. It’s a bit windy, shall we go?
An arrival at the beach might mark the end of many accounts of Brighton, but for me the soul of the place – by which I mean the source of its attitude, the point from which it seems to spill out – is in the South Lanes, that almost comically ramshackle cluster of vernacular informality. Certainly it has its imperfections, assaulted as it is by the relentless march of twee cupcake shops and faux-industrial coffee dispensaries on one side and successive 1980s/90s regimes of ‘regeneration’ on the other, but for the large part it is (if you can ignore the branch of ‘Choccywoccydooda’ and the Thistle Hotel building) characterised by an obstinate refusal to surrender entirely its architectural and spatial integrity. Here, labyrinthine alleyways and cobbled-together cottages still abound. Here jettied upper storeys, clad with clapboard to protect them from the sting of the sea, loom benignly like tottering drunks; here you might find a 15th century wall propping up one end of a pub, a remarkable find in a place almost entirely of the long 19th century; here it is possible to see something of the ocean-bitten, seafaring, salt-encrusted origins of Brighton persisting alongside a distinct air of Dickensian (apologies to Dickens for the generalisation) mid-19th century degeneracy – one almost expects to see gentlemen in battered top hats robbing drunken aristocrats blind by the light of a gas lamp. Most importantly, however, here is the place you and your mates can embed yourselves in the corner of a pub, languishing amongst the battered dark wood like a happy little coven, and drink too much – modern Brighton’s raison d’être.