The seaside and the Regency period and its architecture are the foundation of Brighton’s international reputation for elegance and fun.
The Prince Regent, later George IV, was responsible for the heady combination of fashion and decadence which has remained the essence of the town to the present day.Before George, Prince of Wales adopted the former obscure fishing village of Brighthelmstone as a trysting place for his amorous liaisons it was already becoming a health spa, exploiting the benefits of bathing in seawater. With the Prince of Wales came a pleasure loving high society which quickly established itself as a royal court second only to London.
A great building boom soon followed inspired by other eighteenth century spa towns such as Bath. The distinctive architectural style which evolved became known as Regency. In Brighton the style itself survived long after the period when the Prince acted as Regent.
At the very centre of Brighton geographically and architecturally is the Royal Pavilion, one of the most outrageous, eccentric and wonderful buildings in the world, built for the Prince Regent by John Nash.Its exotic style is not however typical of Brighton Regency, being too outré for widespread imitation. The grand terraces and squares ranging for several miles along the sea front capture the essence of the style.
Both the Kemp Town and Brunswick Town developments are the work of a local firm, Wilds and Busby, for whom Thomas Cubitt built Kemp Town.These developments are inspired by the grand stone terraces, squares and crescents of Bath and the stucco magnificence of John Nash’s London squares and terraces. In consequence, Brighton and Hove possess a splendid array of similar terraces, squares and crescents but, uniquely, opening onto the sea.
Behind the sea front, however, are scores of relatively modest but charming streets with their own terraces and squares, with bow windows and classical pilasters, aping their sea front betters.
In their own distinctive way they are also an essential part of Regency Brighton.
WHEN WAS THE REGENCY?
The severe illness of George III (at the time, considered to be insanity) led to the Regency Act, which caused his eldest son to become de facto sovereign, as Prince Regent, from 5 February 1811.
George III died on 29 January 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV. On his death in 1830, the third son of George III became King as William IV. He died on 20 June 1837 following which Queen Victoria was crowned Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
The accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 marked a fundamental change in the fortunes and character of Brighton.The social distinction enjoyed under George IV’s patronage rapidly decayed when Queen Victoria ceased to use the Pavilion.
Equally important was the arrival of the railway which made possible the development of a truly popular resort, dubbed “London by-the-sea”.
Popular pleasures supplanted the more refined amusements of the fashionable classes. and the high season became a summer one, rather than winter or spring. The great squares and terraces were still being completed and indeed the north side of Palmeira Square was not finished until the Seventies. In the mid-Forties the Clifton Hill area, built on land owned by Thomas Read Kemp, began to be developed with villas and terraces still retaining the elegance of the Regency period. In newly developing Hove, however, ambitious plans, rivalling Kemp Town in scope, were designed by James Knowles, considerable parts of which were completed. These avenues lined with substantial mansions, streets of semi-detached villas and shopping terraces were designed in an ochre-brick style with elaborate shaped brick enrichments, in striking contrast to the smooth stucco of the Regency style.
As well as brick, cast iron became fashionable as a structural as well as decorative building material. The great iron canopy of the station, the Madeira Drive arches, and later the Palace Pier, together with numerous smaller structures such as bandstands and sea front railings, gave Brighton the lacy look which it still retains. Hotels such as the Grand, the Metropole and the Norfolk were built in the Victorian revivalist styles which supplanted Regency.The Grand Hotel became a symbol for opulent grandeur and set a model for hotels elsewhere. Public buildings however, such as the museum and library, continued the fanciful oriental style of the Royal Pavilion.
The revival of church worship, together with the influx of new residents in need of spiritual comfort, created a demand for new churches to accommodate them. Huge brick edifices such as St.Bartholomew’s and St.Michael and All Angels became a dominant and greatly admired feature of the rapidly expanding hinterland of Brighton and Hove.These churches are amongst the most distinguished architectural contributions made to Brighton in the latter part of the nineteenth century.Queen Victoria died in 1901.
Brighton began the twentieth century as an internationally renowned popular resort and ended it as an equally distinguished conference centre, although still successfully retaining its seaside character. Hove, in contrast, rejected candy floss popularity, defining itself as "a residential town by the sea". In 1997 however, the two towns merged under a Unitary Authority.
Architecturally, the century spawned a vast number of new buildings; banks, cinemas, offices, shopping malls, high rise flats and council estates. The new buildings followed national and even occasionally international styles rather than using the local vernacular.These have suffered from the vagaries of fashion, and in many cases have come and gone within a half century. Exceptionally lavish “super” cinemas, built between the Wars, such as the Regent and the Odeon were demolished in the Sixties. while the Astoria has lingered on. Banking Halls and Building Societies built in prime shopping streets in the early years of the century in “Bankers’ Classic” style, stone built to last, are now mostly restaurants. Theme pubs also changed to suit current fashion, but the “King and Queen” in Marlborough Place, world-class in its own way, survives in all its extravagant fantasy.
Central slum clearance schemes, both between the Wars and post-war, led to the building of “Garden City” style communities in the outer suburbs, and then, when these seemed to fail, bleak high-rise flats back in the centre. In the Sixties a new sensitivity to the value and character of the traditional central areas spawned an increasingly powerful conservationist movement which fought against insensitive redevelopment. These new organisations were led by The Regency Society which had campaigned against the destruction of the Brighton and Hove heritage since 1946.Brighton Square (1966), designed to help revitalise The Lanes, was a pioneering example of sensitive reconstruction.
From between the wars, individual building reflected the international, streamlined, functional Modern style. Embassy Court, Saltdean Lido, bus stations and garages exhibited the trademark smooth clean lines, horizontal fenestration and a total absence of traditional ornament. After the Second war Sussex University, built in soft red brick and concrete in parkland, reflected the new sensitivity to setting and human scale. In the Sixties also Brighton acquired skyscrapers; Sussex Heights, Chartwell Court and Bedford Towers proved to be more than enough for Brighton to swallow. Hove also acquired rows of tall apartment blocks marching up Grand Avenue and spreading along the sea front, block after block.
In the last quarter century the pace slowed, but demand for office space created new landmarks such as American Express and numerous undistinguished blocks of “shoe box” structures. Reclaimed foreshore at Blackrock, enclosed by a massive seawall bastion became a Marina, but has proved to be more of a residential, commercial and entertainment centre. Elsewhere along the sea front much has been restored and improved. A balance of tradition and innovation has infused a new vitality into the traditional seaside heart of Brighton and Hove.
Text: Peter Rose, FSA