A socialist Utopia built on sand

Architectural idealism is being eroded on the south coast of England, as two monuments to British modernism come under threat. While Brighton's Embassy Court faces potential demolition, a pub chain is poised to buy the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Few sitting on the plastic chairs set out around the trendy al fresco Meeting Place café on Hove Lawns, looking out to sea or into the reflections in one another's sunglasses, will spare a thought for the building that stands just across the road, tight up against the elegant Grade I facades of Brunswick Terrace. And why should they? The building is manky, cankers of rust show through the deathly grey stucco, the windows are glaucous and most of the curtains look like bargain-bucket purchases in Western Road.

Few sitting on the plastic chairs set out around the trendy al fresco Meeting Place café on Hove Lawns, looking out to sea or into the reflections in one another's sunglasses, will spare a thought for the building that stands just across the road, tight up against the elegant Grade I facades of Brunswick Terrace. And why should they? The building is manky, cankers of rust show through the deathly grey stucco, the windows are glaucous and most of the curtains look like bargain-bucket purchases in Western Road.

The post-modernists sipping mugs of tea or Kenco above the shingle are not to know that they are in the presence of actual - rather than chattering class - deconstruction of the most brutal sort; or that it was a different story in 1935 when Building magazine reported that "the completion of the 11 storey block of residential flats in Brighton marks an important stage in the development of the seafront, expressing a modern phase of English domestic life and a subjective beauty because it is unselfconscious and forthright in its conception and handling."

The following year, Architects' Journal gave Embassy Court and its utopian architect Wells Coates its Building of the Year award. It was, declared AJ, a tall, graceful, building whose "long clean lines, vertical as well as horizontal, its fragile looking romantic staircases with landing above landing cantilevered out against the sky, day and night thrilling one to the marrow."

This landmark of the British Modernist movement instantly became a des res for a great many Left-leaning intellectuals and socialites who had both the money and the inclination to experience what was at that time a titillating new palette of innovations: an unheard of diagonal steel beam structure, the outer skin of poured concrete lined with cork, ingeniously hinged balcony windows that opened to allow inner sun-rooms to be formed in moments, an avant-garde lightshow on the walls of the ground floor restaurant-cum-lobby, and Britain's first penthouses.

Embassy Court's modernist and egalitarian pretensions will have been noted - sardonically, no doubt - by Graham Greene as he wandered, gimlet-eyed, around Brighton and Hove deciding just how Pinky would dispose of Kolly Kibber in his 1938 novel Brighton Rock. Greene would have relished the implicit contradictions of Coates' socialist-minded creation: how, for example, could a building designed to promote health and happiness for ordinary people have purpose-built dressing tables with secret compartments for jewels?

Embassy Court has become an architectural Kolly Kibber - tragic and down-at-heel, it's a vague and shambling hulk haunted by forebodings of doom, trying to keep one step ahead, just out of harm's way. But Embassy Court is also becoming something else, something trickier: a visible problem of which the complexities are so dense that they are beginning to make the building invisible.

Embassy Court's history since the early Nineties poses what appear to be intractable questions about the fate of privately-owned architectural icons. It also highlights the role of local authorities, and the law in relation to landlords' and flat-dwellers' responsibilities.

Those who cough up an average £1,500 in annual maintenance - and not all in the 71 flats do - must feel like passengers on a rotting and eternally becalmed cruise ship. They can't afford the £5m or so needed to totally renovate the building; and there are no developers or housing associations willing to take the risk.

The history of Embassy Court's fall from grace dates from the late Sixties, when faults in its design - mainly to do with water penetration - became more obvious. Then, in the mid-Nineties after a tortuous dispute between the leaseholders and the freeholder, the latter was ordered to pay £1.5m for repairs. But his company then went into receivership, though he retained an interest in about a third of the flats in the building. The leaseholders were duly awarded joint freehold of the building in 1998 by judge Monique Viner at Brighton County Court.

At that point, the situation looked promising. Working with architects Alan Phillips Associates, various key emergency repairs were put in hand, and two years ago the Brighton-based Sanctuary Housing Association announced that it intended to enter into a development agreement with the new freeholders - in effect, that it would carry out a £3.4m revamp of Embassy Court. But after reports from engineers Ove Arup and quantity surveyors Davis Langdon Everest, Sanctuary withdrew from the project.

"This building is the tragic host to such an extraordinary story," says Alan Phillips, who is no longer involved as a consultant to the freeholders, but remains a passionate advocate of its preservation - and its original ethos.

"Embassy Court is despised in Brighton. It requires a large vision to maintain it and a large vision to save it. I think it's at the cusp between disruption and dereliction. It's one of the few truly modern movement apartment buildings designed specifically to exploit a seaside location. Now it's probably a health risk - there's deep irony for you."

The situation at Embassy Court has been complicated by a sizeable tranche of Sudanese refugee occupants. A source claims that, at one time, some senior members of the original lessees' association "didn't like foreigners" and were concerned with differences in the values of the flats: "They wanted the place done up and the Sudanese kicked out and a housing association put in."

The association could then have bought the flats owned by the previous freeholder, thus securing the building's physical and commercial future "rather than seeing the building's occupancy as a single aim, with a proper duty to care for its occupants."

Plan A failed and there is, essentially, no decisive Plan B. A new £54,000 report on the condition and maintenance needed at Embassy Court was delivered last week. It confirms that the building is not in immediate danger of collapse or serious damage - but it will achieve little more than setting new annual maintenance targets to be met by freeholders.

Brighton and Hove Council is not prepared to release a government-funded £1.4m Single Regeneration Budget grant that was nominally put aside for improvements at Embassy Court in 1998 - but which hinged on the involvement of a suitable developer or housing association. Council spokesperson Sue Bowes says the money is likely to be transferred to another project.

She confirms that the council is not prepared to use public money to carry out any significant building work at Embassy Court, which English Heritage rates as an at-risk Grade II building. But if freeholders cannot keep the building in a safe condition, the council will deal with it - and bill the occupiers. In other words, the freeholders are alone in a maze of continuing legal disputes against the previous landlord which Bowes admits is "a labyrinthine task" that the council patently wants no part of.

Architectural modernism is hanging by a thread at Embassy Court. In a time-warping irony, the building has become just what Wells Coates once hoped - a gaff for Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. The Paul Nash paintings over the fireplace in the original show-flat have gone; so has the sensitised, image-reflecting film on the wall of the lobby invented by McKnight Kauffer. The crisp details of the original are being inexorably denuded. Many of the flats are commercially worthless.

Embassy Court has become Brighton seafront's designer barnacle, grungey and virtually ignored. 65 years ago, those passing along the prom at Hove Lawns must have gazed up in wonder, or consternation, at the sheer white stucco facade, the slim balconies and the ultra-precise lines of the Crittall W20 steel window frames.

Today, the perspective is reversed. The building's inhabitants may occasionally look upon those gazing out to sea across the shingle from the Meeting Place cafe; and they might wonder if their monument to modernism - which was once "thrilling to the marrow" - has become an irretrievably anonymous mausoleum that ultimately faces demolition.

The pleasure pavilion

Twenty miles along the coast from Brighton stands another, even finer, monument to British modernist architecture. The De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill has it all - crisply scribed horizontals, perfectly achieved flat and curved glazing set into slim sectioned steel frames, and a beautiful metal staircase that rises two storeys like a helix in meltdown.

Like Embassy Court, its future is in doubt. But the nature of the threat is quite different: the Tory-controlled Rother District Council says that it can't justify spending £750,000 on the Grade I building's annual running costs; and they are ready to let the Wetherspoon's pub chain take it over if a suitable partner can be found to run the pavilion theatre.

But what, exactly, is at stake? Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's design - produced within months of Coates' Embassy Court plans - has been described by Lord Rogers as "the best example of modern architecture during its heroic period in Britain. Therefore, using it as a pub is equivalent to converting Indigo Jones' Queen's House at Greenwich into a pub because it has no specific use. It is pure vandalism".

Lord Roger's logic would be more compelling if the pavilion was a kind of modernist icon set in amber and run by English Heritage. But it is not. It has a very specific use: the pavilion has always been a place of entertainment. At Bexhill, the issue is how locals may want to use the building - whether the majority perceive it as something sacrosanct, an endless and deferential segue from the sunlit uplands of the past; or whether they're not bothered what happens inside as long as it looks smart.

Jill Theis, a former local Lib-Dem councillor and current vice chairman of the Friends of the Pavilion Trust, fears that the pavilion will, in effect, become an exclusion zone if Wetherspoon's takes it over. The council, she insists, has skated over the question of community use: "It's an extraordinary building, the way it's filled with people - smart types from London, families on their way to the beach, old biddies." And she claims the Tories are seeking a quick-fix partly in a reaction against "these arty-farty liberals".

It may be this very species that has been part of the problem. The Arts Council encouraged the application for £13 million in Lottery funding four years ago to underwrite the pavilion's physical future. In December 1998, the bid was rejected, though £125,000 was given to "re-scope" the application. And last summer the Arts Council said it had allocated £4m, subject to Lottery funding application.

The Trust is embittered by the failure of the application because it has opened the door to Wetherspoon's.

One insider complains the application procedure is too complicated: "The Arts Council sits there, waiting for you to jump, and if you make a false move, they laugh." The council, meanwhile, claims it has not ruled out progressing with a fresh Lottery bid via the Arts Council, but its chief executive, David Powell, admits that "we haven't got a timescale. If Wetherspoon's proceed they have to provide a conservation plan. The lottery bid is being progressed in parallel". Yet he also says that "we haven't actioned a decision to submit a bid yet".

There has been strong local support for the Trust's efforts to ring-fence the pavilion's ambience. But is there a clear-cut way forward in terms of its use?

Consider this: in 1935, the Earl De La Warr, speaking at the pavilion's opening, described it as "a venture which is part of a great national movement, virtually to found a new industry - the industry of giving that relaxation, that pleasure, that culture which hitherto the gloom and dreariness of British resorts have driven our fellow countrymen to seek in foreign lands."

Pork scratchings or the tink of spoons on cup rims? Those arch-leftie modernists, Mendelsohn and Chermayeff, may not be whirling in their graves at such polarities. But while Lord Roger's "vandalism" complaint may be wobbly in its detail, it still implies the key question: will Bexhill Pavilion remain a genuinely public building - and does the council care one way or another?