Brighton’s cardboard box architecture

Wednesday 17th Feb 2010

Brighton and Hove got a fair few new buildings during the property boom, and pretty much all of them look like white cardboard boxes. The Regency Society bitches and whines about the occasional daring or interesting project, while the council’s planners approve yet more short-termist developments too dull to inspire praise or passion.

Not every development can be a masterpiece, but what I’ve a problem with is the lack of any kind of minimum standard of design for the city. Why isn’t there a style guide? Why isn’t there any kind of standard model if a developer doesn’t have the imagination to think up anything new? These white cardboard boxes are all over Brighton now, from West Street through Jubilee Street and up to the New England Quarter, with yet more marching off into Hove, already looking shabby as their cheap rendering cracks off and the endless ranks of grey-framed windows get stained by seagull shit and sea air. It’s not a style of architecture that copes well with neglect under tough conditions, they’re identikit developments, straight from the catalogues of materials suppliers, not the minds of creative architects.

We could have had a 42-storey tower here, but we got a line of cardboard boxes instead. Now, rather than a view across Brighton as you arrive by train, you get these.

I think it’s about time we had a local style guide. I’m a designer by trade, so I guess I’m used to them - receiving one as part of a brief at the start of a project, or writing them for corporate identities I’ve worked on. They’re invaluable as tools for ensuring consistency and a minimum acceptability of design. At best, they form the starting point of a design, answering the basic questions before you start so you can devote more time to creativity and quality, and at worst, if you can’t think up anything creative or new, you follow the guide and it’ll be fine.

Towns and cities need styleguides, Brighton and Hove especially! It might be expensive initially; you’d have to identify the prevailing style in each area of the city and design exemplar buildings (or at least façades) for them, but ultimately it’d reduce costs and improve quality. Pre-approved styles mean that stocks can be maintained and contractors have incentives to develop specific techniques and skills for each style.

Sure, there are objections to the idea — you’d end up with a city full of safe, backward-looking, bourgeois buildings, never controversial, just dull and uninspiring. My counter to that is that’s what we have now — with a styleguide you could at least have some buildings that maintain the character of an area. Has the character of the North Laine spread out into the Jubilee Square area? No, not really. Has the New England Quarter developed into any kind of worthy extension to the North Laine? There’s an e-Kagen shop up there, but that’s about it. Mm, another Sainsbury’s, just what Brighton needed.

Not that generic architecture is anything new — and I don’t just mean the tower blocks.

These developments are ugly, out of scale, don’t suit the area, and if you stand in the middle of them, you could be anywhere in northern Europe. If you’re going to put a development up, and you don’t have a glorious architectural masterpiece in mind, it’d be best for you and everyone who has to live and work there that it quietly reflects the character of the surrounding area. A styleguide may not lead to groundbreaking architecture, but more often than not, that’s the last thing you want.