Walking along the seafront in Brighton, each area has its own distinctive character and landmarks. The Marina dominates the shore to the east of Kemptown, while further west the elegant Madeira terraces provide a glimpse of the city’s past as a Victorian pleasure resort.
After this you reach the Brighton Wheel, which has become a symbol of the city and the delight of Instagrammers since it was built four years ago. Then, of course, there is Palace Pier (commonly known as Brighton Pier), the most well-known landmark of them all. Continuing west, there is the site for the new i360 – a gargantuan new observation tower than will supposedly bring hundreds of thousands more tourists (as if we needed more!) to the city.
Carrying on towards Portslade, Hove Lagoon provides a nice spot for some watersports or an icecream by the lake. The area’s also great for celeb-watching: Fatboy Slim owns the cafe by the Lagoon, and neighbours include Paul McCartney, David Walliams and Adele.
Brighton’s seafront boasts unique, attractive features along the whole of its length – apart from in central Hove, where the only distinguishing feature is the King Alfred leisure centre.
Don’t get me wrong – the King Alfred has a perfectly good swimming pool, despite being a bit crowded on weekends. But compared to big hitters such as Brighton Pier or the i360, the centre’s drab, dated appearance and run-of-the-mill activities leave much to be desired. It can’t help but appear as the weakest link in the chain: the least dynamic and, well, the least ‘Brightonian’ of all our seafront attractions.
This may be why in 2003 a plan was put forward to revitalise this part of the shore with a new leisure centre. The most striking aspect of this project was the involvement of the world-famous architect Frank Gehry. His ambitious – some would say over-ambitious – design included two 38-storey towers offering 438 new homes, but the buildings’ height spooked local residents and the plans were quickly scaled back to around half their original size.
Even with their smaller dimensions and with a sweeter offer of more affordable homes, Gehry’s towers met with large amounts of resistance from conservation groups and from the local community, many of whom were worried about the loss of light for their homes, the impact of a higher population density, or the fact that the design would be out of sync with the area’s local architecture.
After back-and-forth negotiations with planning authorities over several years, the saga came to a close when the banking crisis struck and ING, the project’s financial backer, pulled out.
Following the collapse of the Gehry scheme, Valerie Paynter from the saveHOVE conservation group was quoted in the Independent as saying: “The whole thing was puffery. I’d like to see [the leisure centre] refurbished, with no hoity-toity numbers, no iconic, landmark crap.”
This is depressing, and highlights the worst side of Brighton and Hove’s conservation groups. ‘Iconic’ and ‘landmark’ should not be dirty words, especially not for a city as courageous and forward-thinking as Brighton. Those concerned with conservation should remember that Brighton Pavilion, the jewel of our city and a massive pull for tourists, met with similar criticism when it was first constructed.
The New Brighton Guide, a Regency-era publication, described the Pavilion a “masterpiece of bad taste”. The Comtesse de Boigne declared it a “mad-house”, and when Queen Victoria first visited in 1837, she noted, “The Pavilion is a strange, odd, Chinese looking place, both outside and inside.” Imagine what the city would have lost if the architect had not gone ahead with his “strange, odd” design.
What is next for the King Alfred? After a hiatus of six years, two firms have now been invited to submit detailed plans for the redevelopment of the building. Hove’s new Labour MP, Peter Kyle, believes that the city should act with boldness, rather than timidity, in re-imagining this tired old leisure centre: “If we get this right, Hove will have a fantastic new building that serves our community and is a real magnet for visitors too. It must be bold enough to pique people’s interest and we should view it as the start of a period of investment in Hove seafront.”
We should not be afraid of the words “iconic” and “landmark” when it comes to new developments like the King Alfred. Without this type of vision for the city, we would not have such gems as the Pavilion or Palace Pier. New developments always involve an element of risk, but if we can’t think big in Brighton and Hove, then we can’t think big at all.