From thence to Venice, Padua, and the rest,
In one of which a sumptuous temple stands,
That threats the stars with her aspiring top,
Thus, hitherto has Faustus spent his time
The history of architecture’s preoccupation with height at various points in its development needs no introduction, and neither does the recent spate of steel-and-glass Babels springing up in London and elsewhere. Jonathan Meades’s excellent program on architecture and the vertiginous provides a beguiling introduction to an exhaustive subject, and to write a paltry blog post on it would seem to be at once a little hubristic and fairly pointless.
What does beg a brief consideration, however, is the intrusion of such an Icarian structure into a place so apparently averse to the lofty and the vertical: Brighton. The Queen of Watering Holes has recently had bestowed upon it – by that benevolent patron British Airways, no less – a monumental pole of such prodigious height that the remainder of Brighton’s seafront appears like a diminutive model town in comparison. The ‘British Airways i360’, as it is clumsily termed, has been constructed opposite Regency Square (the residents are, I’m sure, quite thrilled to have such monumental and exciting new architecture obscuring their view of the sea), on the site of the entrance to the old West Pier, now a picturesque wreck. The ominous connotations of such a monument to decay and collapse do not, however, seem to have deterred the i360’s developers (who, to their credit, have fully restored the old West Pier’s charming mid-19th century ticket office).
The point of this engorged beam, first of all, is difficult to determine. On their website, British Airways implore the prospective i360 passenger to “take a flight to the skies and see Sussex as you have never seen it before”, ignoring the fact that for the majority of Brighton’s residents who have paid even a cursory visit to the hills and beacons of the South Downs, they most certainly have seen Sussex in this way before. Hollingbury Hill, Whitehawk Hill, Mount Caburn, Ditchling Beacon, even the top floor of the tower blocks at Whitehawk and Sussex Heights: all these vantage points provide vast and delightful vistas of Brighton and its surrounding country, to the extent that to spend vast amounts of money and resources on the pursuit of a view which (I imagine) could effectively be termed only slightly better seems at best a little pointless, at worst a tremendous waste (especially at a time in which Brighton is in the grip of a major housing crisis). The i360 is a building the only purpose of which is to facilitate what is, in effect, already possible (I should point out that, at the time of writing, I haven’t been up the i360, and if, come the time for my ascent, the sheer majesty of the hitherto inconceivable scenes arrayed before me cause me to lapse into a glorious reverie, I will willingly cede the point). There is, it must be pointed out, an argument that the i360 will be another Guggenheim, attracting tourism and cultural interest to Brighton. What this argument appears to ignore, however, is that Brighton’s very appeal lies not in polished surfaces and sumptuous set-pieces but has, since the 18th century, lain in raffishness, deviance, liminality and play. From the North Laine to St James’s Street, Brighton’s architectural soul has ever resided in archaic Victorianisms, absurdly sumptuous Regency caprices and on-the-fly vernacular dwellings. To turn it into another ‘top-end destination’ would obliterate its original attraction altogether.
Brighton is, of course, no stranger to fanciful architecture. The Royal Pavilion springs to mind as the most immediate example, and indeed its forceful whimsy was subject to considerable ridicule at the time of its construction and afterwards. The 19th century radical William Cobbett harboured particular disdain for the Pavilion, which he satirically termed ‘The Kremlin’:
“Take stalks 9 inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the top of [a] box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box. Then take a considerable number of bulbs of the crown-imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture. There! That’s ‘a Kremlin!’”
As I have argued before, the Royal Pavilion is by no means an innocent building. But its architecture is, ultimately, historically and (arguably more importantly) aesthetically meretricious in some sense. If nothing else, it is a genuinely beguiling building which occupies a comparatively unique position in the architectural pantheon and thus deserves to be maintained. It is difficult to argue the same for what is effectively a colossal metal pipe with a ring around it. At best it might stand as a monument to the crass tastelessness of the 21st century.
I am wary, at this point, of straying into ‘what an eyesore’ territory. Some wonderful works of modernist and Brutalist architecture in Britain have been derided and torn down because of their deliberate departure with pre-existing aesthetic norms, and architectural boldness is, I think, a principle to be clung to. But openness to the possibilities of a new and possibly strange future does not entail blanket acceptance of bad architecture – everything is and should be open to analysis, and the i360 does not stand up to analysis. It is stark without being dramatic, intrusive without being challenging, unadorned without grace and uniform without harmony. It looks like an industrial chimney, without even the Promethean theatrics of a billowing smokestack. The i360 is not even fanciful enough to be a grand failure – rather, it will no doubt remain lodged in the earth for aeons, ferrying streams of people up and down its weathered shaft until England itself is consumed by the sea, after which it might at least act as a momentary refuge for a terrified family before it plunges them, unthinking, back into the ocean.