Embassy Court, Brighton

Embassy Court is one of the most striking buildings on the seafront at Brighton and Hove, although the reasons for this have differed over the years.

When built in 1935, the building contrasted sharply with the more sedate and ornamental architecture of King’s Road; but by the 1990s, the structure drew comment because of its terribly run down nature.

The building made the local press after chunks of render and windows fell from the building onto the street below, and it appeared until recently that it may suffer the same ignominious fate met by the West Pier sat opposite it, which finally succumbed to the elements (and arsonists) in early 2004.

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Luckily this proved not to be the case – a consortium formed by residents and owners were able to wrestle the freehold of the building from the previous ineffectual management company, and with the assistance of the Conran group, restoration commenced in 2004.

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The decline of Embassy Court was all the more worrying due to its significance in architectural terms. Although there are several blocks of flats in the Art Deco style in Brighton and Hove, none encapsulates the boldness or prominence of Embassy Court. The building was designed by the architect Wells Coates, a Canadian/Japanese designer acknowledged as one of the masters of the machine aesthetic of the 1930s.

One year previous to this, Coates had been responsible for the design of the Isokon flats in Hampstead, London, which were intended to provide affordable housing with a communal slant, and in the year that Embassy Court was completed, one of Coates’ most iconic designs appeared on the market – the striking Ekco AD65 radio set, housed in a perfectly circular bakelite cabinet, and now highly collectable.

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Embassy Court was intended to be luxurious, and this was reflected in the well off (and sometimes famous) occupants in the building’s early life.

One of the features of the building was a restaurant in the basement to cater for residents; and even though this meant that kitchens in the flats were rather small, they still featured built-in cupboards with integrated Electrolux refrigerators, a feature practically unheard of in British homes of the period. The building also incorporated the first ever penthouse flats to be built in the UK.

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Like the Isokon flats, Embassy Court was uncompromisingly modern; the sole concession made to integrate the building with its neighbours was the way that the windows were designed to line up with those of its neighbour.

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However, such was the contrast between the two styles of architecture, such a subtle gesture went largely unnoticed. The failure of the building to blend in with its surroundings was a frequent criticism, but its appearance found favour with one very significant man. That man was Herbert Carden, who had been a town councillor for Brighton since 1895.

Carden was a great believer in what was referred to as Municipal Socialism, and had been responsible for the formation of Greater Brighton in 1928, leading to a knighthood in 1930. So taken was Carden with Embassy Court, that in a booklet commemorating the Royal Jubilee in 1935, plans for the complete reconstruction of the seafront area were revealed, which would have entailed mass demolition of the original Georgian properties to make way for a slew of new and ultra modern blocks.

Thankfully, such destruction did not go ahead, leaving Embassy Court as the only modern building on the seafront until the construction of the Cavendish hotel and the Kingswest Centre in the 1960s.

By the time that these two buildings were constructed, Embassy Court was in physical decline, a situation exacerbated by a cheap and shoddy programme of refurbishment in the 1960s. The fabric of the building was also in poor condition; the steel framed windows were highly vulnerable to the salty sea air, as was the steel reinforcement of the concrete structure of the flats.

Maintenance work on the block was skimped, and by the late 1990s, the block had a reputation that was at best bohemian, and at worst, downright dodgy. The proliferation of absentee landlords did not help matters, and it appeared that the block would face more years of neglect until it was razed to the ground, despite listed status.

The state of the building was so poor that it was impossible to get a mortgage on any of the flats; and it was not until the management company Bluestorm formed by residents were able to gain control of the building at the turn of the 21st Century that work could commence on reviving the block.

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This is currently in process, with repairs being carried out both externally and internally, with the intention being to restore the block to something approaching its original state, although with some modernisation such as the replacement of the centralized heating and hot water system with individual units for each flat; but it would appear that once more Embassy Court will become a building that strikes one because of its unique and uncompromising appearance rather than the semi-dereliction that had affected it for such a long time.

The pictures on this page were taken in 2001, long before any work had started, and show how poor the condition of the block was externally. At the time of writing, work is being completed on the restoration of the side of the building that faces the seafront, and the scaffolding that shrouds it is due to come down soon.

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