Brighton & Hove is supposed to be a radical city. Or, at least, Brighton is. Or, at least, parts of Brighton are. It’s certainly worth noting that the Brighton Kemptown constituency has voted Conservative in the last two general elections. Either way, Brighton has a reputation – occasionally a proven one – for political unorthodoxy and resistance. In spite of this reputation, however, the place is more or less bereft of radical architecture. By radical architecture is here meant architecture which (successfully or unsuccessfully) seeks in its intended purpose, its design and its organisation of space to remake – and to remake in a progressive, sometimes revolutionary way – the lives of the people living, working and existing in its presence. There is some passable modernist building in Brighton, certainly: some good (and some not so good) housing estates, some of which display a genuine sympathy for and attention to their intended occupants. On the whole, however – and perhaps somewhat surprisingly – the best radical architecture in Sussex is to be found exactly there: in Sussex.
Outside of Brighton – a ‘People’s Republic’ as some would have it – the county of Sussex (divided in the 19th century into West Sussex and East Sussex but in all areas except administration essentially a coherent unit) is not particularly suggestive of radicalism in any concrete sense. In its modern form Sussex is broadly deserving of this characterisation – electorally it mirrors its coastal setting: a sea of blue. Its essential components are demoralised seaside resorts, quiet market towns and quieter villages: no Poplarism or Red Clydeside here. But this hasn’t always been the case: During the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the people of Sussex rose in their droves. In the time of the English Civil War the MP for Chichester, William Cawley, was a regicide – one of those who signed the death warrant of King Charles I, the ‘man of blood’. In Lewes in the later 18th century, the famous radical Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, first began to become involved in matters of civic society. The predominantly rural county of Sussex was a centre of riot, rick-burning and running battles with the Yeomanry during the Swing Riots of the 1830s, in which wretched and oppressed agricultural labours fought tooth-and-nail for a scrap of what was every day being ripped away from them by enclosure and the rise of a mercantile agriculture. The unofficial motto of Sussex is widely held to be the phrase “we wunt be druv” – an assertion of the individual agency and independence of the rural Sussex worker against the ruling order.
Following the advent of the 20th century, radical Sussex might be said to have withered on the vine. There were collectives of nominally progressive artists and thinkers, such as the members of the Bloomsbury Group who had gathered themselves at Charleston, but the majority of them were characterised by a conspicuous withdrawal from the realm of political thought and action. The University of Sussex might still be said to carry the torch, although its management appear to have committed to cashing in on its radical credentials for the purposes of marketing (something thankfully met with resistance by some of its staff, and certainly by a sizeable but diminishing portion of its students).
And yet, dotted along the coast, from Bexhill to Saltdean, from Falmer to Chichester (yes, Chichester) are examples of the work of architects and planners who, during the turbulent years of the first half of the 20th century, created buildings expressly designed to facilitate new and exciting forms of living: to provide environments in which the lives of the people were not secondary considerations – inconvenient intrusions on aesthetic innovation – but the founding principle from which exciting and explicitly modern structures would emerge. It must be said that many, if not all of these buildings are not the work of local architects. This is immaterial, however, because it is their situation which matters – amidst aggressively quiet villages and UKIP strongholds these buildings provide for the contemporary observer a reminder of what is available to us if we remain open to the possibilities of a radically remade future.
The best and most famous of these buildings is the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. It was built in 1934 at the behest of the socialist aristocrat (a more common paradox than you might think) and mayor of Bexhill Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr (this is a sobering reminder that despite progressive leanings much of what constituted the British left’s purportedly progressive agenda, especially during the Attlee years, maintained a distinctly patrician administrative structure). Nonetheless, the Pavilion itself is a triumph: confidently modern and emphatically public. Its architects were Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, both internationally renowned proponents of resolutely forward-looking modernist architecture in many of its various forms. The Pavilion faces outward towards the sea in what might almost be interpreted as a gesture towards internationalism. Indeed, its enthusiastic embrace of the emphatically Continental style known as International Modernism is especially remarkable given that the style is practically unknown in Britain. Its clean, straight, industrial lines, its ocean liner-isms, its openness and navigability, its central location, its concrete and steel body, its deliberate newness – all these features are combined into a structure built explicitly for the use and leisure of the majority of visitors to Bexhill: day-trippers and bank holidayers; working people. The De La Warr Pavilion presents – like its counterpart the Saltdean Lido, 30 miles and 2 years away – a genuine faith (a naïve one, perhaps, but an admirable and still relevant one) in the capacity of industrial and technological progress to create better conditions of life for everyone.
More examples exist: there is, of course, Basil Spence’s Sussex University campus – a piece of considered and thoughtful Jaoul-inspired modernism brilliantly alert to the complex and rewarding relationship between modernity and history, centered around an agora – an explicitly focal space of public gathering in which can still be seen stalls, gatherings, marches and rallies. There is Chichester Festival Theatre, a theatrically bold concrete structure which projects the theatre’s pentagonal stage – an embodiment of the public-spirited philosophy of ‘theatre in the round’ – resolutely outwards onto and beyond its public face, loudly declaring that art is not there simply to be collected in private dwellings or performed to wealthy fee-payers, but exists for the enrichment of all. There are even little houses such as the one five minutes from where I grew up in Bognor Regis, nestled amongst mock-tudor semis and monotonous bungalows. Though less public-spirited, Beach House, designed by Soviet émigré Berthold Lubetkin – a committed socialist who famously declared that “nothing is too good for ordinary people” – again asserts in its own quiet way the capacity even in dour, craven old England for radical architecture to exist in spite of it all.
These buildings are geographically circumscribed by a county known in our day for its conservative politics (Brighton excepted). In the same way, the current political moment seems characterised in many places by petty selfishness, aggressive ethno-nationalism, rampant misogyny and cynical pessimism. Though many of them may not have succeeded in their ambitions, the buildings of modernist Sussex still stand as challenges from history, reminders that even though our prospects seem hopeless, things have not always been as they are and need not always be as they are. A better world is possible, and it is our duty to build it.