My Kind of Town

Written by Peter Barber. First appeared in Architecture Today 135, pg 64, Febuary 2003

 

I love streets and that's why I love Brighton

Streets thick with people going to and from their homes, pausing for a chat or just passing through. Streets with rows of front doors and bay windows, balconies and roof terraces. Corner shops, pubs and odd factories. A club under the pavement, a mini cinema up a back stair. Old people at the bench under a tree, kids knocking a ball about, shoppers on a mission, scratchies at the cash point.

Brighton is a masterclass in street design, an encyclopaedia of terraced housing variants, a lesson in how streets might be put together to make a city, unfolding like a cinematic screenplay. (Was it Eisenstein who said that the ancient Greek urbanists were the first great cinematographers?).

Eyes left on the arriving train as the thousand or so worker cottages of Hanover hove into view, a grid of steeply sloping, brightly coloured stucco streets wrap the hill, a tiny pub on each corner, a brilliant festival in June, with every front door open.

For a shift in scale nip across town to one of Europe's great urban set pieces. Adelaide Crescent is a hundred or so late baroque mansions formed into a gigantic serpentine terrace around a two and a half acre public garden. Big skies and big views out to sea.

In between, an uninterrupted 2 and a half mile ladder of streets run down to the promenade each following the rules, but each quite distinct in scale, detail and culture. One hundred ways to make a balcony, a window, an entrance. Dozens of ideas for handling the joints and junctions at a street corner - a wrap, a notch, a collision.

And each street a handy stroll down to the seafront. Start at Brunswick Lawns where freshly painted neo classical facades and the easy sweep of the horizon are mis-en-scene for promenaders. Skaters make shapes, cyclists, wheel chairs, push chairs and the refuse truck, strung out clubbers, tai chi and lollies, basketball and smell of beach bar-b-q. Drums and bells a way off, chatter up close. Walk past the listing (+ listed) West Pier poised to collapse (+ and with it the Councils outrageous plans to build a shopping arcade astride the adjacent promenade). On past the Grand Hotel rebuilt after the Irish republican bomb. Walk on by Wells Coates' 'go faster' Embassy Court, now almost beyond repair, a kind of back to front Lawn Road Flats and much better seen from it's rear courtyard.

As night falls and the wind rises head for the shelter of the laines where the Classical grid gives way to winding passageways and shadowy alleys, once the ancient fishing village of Brighthelmston, from which Brighton grew. Peer into Jewellers' windows. Shuffle sideways along crowded passages.

Emerge into trafficky North Street, cross over into Gloucester Street and enter Brighton's urban oddity…… the North Laines, a strange perhaps unique hit and miss grid of streets that don't line up. All at right angles but quite un-navigable.

Our stroll ends at Nash's Brighton Pavilion. George IV's fun palace - The London Court bored him. Not a 'stand alone' Palace but in true Brighton style, grafted with a flourish, onto the end of a humdrum terrace of shops.

Most people have a story to tell about a visit to Brighton - a sunny day on the promenade, or a hen night in the lanes.

My own earliest memory of Brighton is attending a 'Sea gulls' game as a child in the late 60's. My next visit was when as an adolescent, I sped down the A23 for a Friday night with some mates and was arrested with a newly made acquaintance on the derelict West Pier. In 2000 at the height of the property boom, despairing of ever managing to afford somewhere in London we shifted down there. I am now one of 10,000 people who daily wiz up and down to work.

Brighton has been a lovely place to live. It has also been an inspiration for my street based housing and urban design projects and a vital precedent to refer to.

People say that public space is dead, that gated communities are an inevitability, that valuable residential real estates and housing for the poor need to be segregated and separated, that small local shops can't survive, that housing needs defensible space, that overlooking is problematic and that the mark of a good street is it's bin stores.'

And I say get a life… and a day return to Brighton.

 

Peter Barber