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Last Updated: Monday, 26 September 2005, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Shaping the future of the seaside
By Chris Summers
BBC News Magazine

Frank Gehry was influenced by this picture of promenading Edwardian ladies
Frank Gehry was influenced by this image of Edwardian ladies
He's designed some of the most spectacular buildings of the modern age, now Frank Gehry - credited with almost single-handedly regenerating a Spanish city - has set his sights on the English seaside. So why have his plans split local opinion?

Most councils would jump at the chance of having "the world's greatest architect" design an iconic building in their city, especially when it comes with a free sports centre thrown in.

Brighton and Hove - which became a single city in 2000 - has done just that, having agreed in principle to a 290m Frank Gehry landmark right on the seafront. The fact that Gehry's friend, film star Brad Pitt, wants a hand in the design only adds to the glamour.

But the building, which could prove to be a bigger draw than the city's famous Royal Pavilion, has split opinion in this East Sussex locale.

What is proposed is an indoor leisure centre, complete with three swimming pools, surrounded by 754 flats, 40% of which will be "affordable".

The Changing face of Brighton & Hove

But most controversial of all are the two towers - 21 and 25 storeys tall - in the distinctive, asymmetrical sculpted style of the 76-year-old Canadian-born architect.

Many local residents, some of whom will lose their sea view, call the plan a "monstrosity". They say it is completely out of kilter with the character of Hove, which has always been seen as the more genteel sister of brash Brighton.

But the leader of Brighton and Hove Council, Ken Bodfish, says the building - which will replace the decrepit King Alfred Leisure Centre, dating from the 1930s - will be a great boost to the city.

"There will always be localised objections but in 10 years' time people will wonder what all the fuss was about," he says.

Guggenheim, Bilbao
Gehry's Bilbao museum contrasts with the surrounding buildings
Mr Bodfish says the new King Alfred could give the city the same shot-in-the-arm which the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum gave to Bilbao. The once faltering city in Spain's Basque country has seen a radical turnaround of its fortunes since Gehry's museum opened in the late 1990s.

"What we are going to get is an iconic building which will be Frank Gehry's only major building in Britain. In a sense it's probably also one of his last, because he's in his 70s now," he says.

Gehry's inspiration for the two towers is derived from a photograph he saw during a visit to the city three years ago.

"One particular image of an Edwardian woman captured my imagination," says Gehry. "The movement of the dress as she promenaded along the seafront provided the inspiration for the historical references and sculptured forms in the design."

In fact the plans have already been scaled down - he originally planned four towers, the tallest of which was 38 storeys, but after several trips to Hove decided the designs were "arrogant" and scaled them back.

Frank Gehry
Born 1929, known for his curvaceous structures, often covered with reflective metal
Style derived from late modernism
Designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA; Guggenheim, Bilbao; Museum of Tolerance, Jerusalem
The King Alfred is only one of a number of projects in the pipeline for the city, which has always struggled for space because it is hemmed in by the sea and the South Downs:

  • The Jubilee Library - which was nominated for the Stirling Prize - opened recently in the city centre.

  • Brighton and Hove Albion is hoping to hear by the end of October if John Prescott has given the go-ahead for its futuristic new football stadium at Falmer, on the outskirts of the city.

  • Planning permission was given recently for an ice rink development at Black Rock on the seafront.

  • Plans are afoot for 990 flats at Brighton Marina, most of which would be in a skyscraper.

  • There is also a massive development going on near Brighton station, which will include a 42-storey tower.

    The council has long wanted to refurbish the King Alfred site but Mr Bodfish says it did not have the money. So it hit on the idea of funding the new 46m sports centre through the sale of private flats in the development, some of which will sell for 1m.

    But some in the city smell a rat.

    Vanessa Brown, one of six Conservative councillors who voted against the project, claims the Labour group had been "dazzled" by the idea of having a Gehry building and had overlooked several flaws in the scheme.

    "It's an over-development of the site. There are too many flats, the towers are too high and it's not at all in keeping with that area of the seafront," she says.

    The developers, Karis, urge people to see the bigger picture.

    "Brighton and Hove has got some wonderful buildings from the Regency and Victorian eras but in later years we've not got anything of great repute and the council wants to deliver a truly great building," says Karis spokeswoman Heather James.

    46m sports centre with three swimming pools, sports hall, gym, creche and cafe
    754 flats, including 282 for council tenants and shared ownership
    Public spaces, in the form of piazzas, with shops and street entertainers
    But there is no convincing Kate Faulkner, who has lived opposite the King Alfred site for nine years and will lose her sea view.

    "Hove has got beautiful buildings, they are so regal. But this monstrosity is an insult. Everybody wants a new sports centre but those towers are just ugly," she says.

    Selma Montford, from the Brighton Society, agrees: "The design is completely inappropriate to the area. It might be alright in a desert but not here. It takes no account of the surroundings."

    A full planning application will be discussed early next year but the new King Alfred will probably not be finished until 2012.

    So Gehry fans may have to wait a little while for their day out by the seaside.

    Add your comments to this story using the form below:

    Despite being an artist myself I must say I sympathise with the residents of Brighton as I feel the plans are rather bold and chaotic quite frankly. In addition how would you like your sea view blighted by a two skyscrapers?
    Nigel Wilson, Wales

    This building is a great opportunity for both Brighton and the UK. It's understandable why some people being fearful since many mistakes were made in the 60s and 70s with cheap ugly high rises being put up, ruining the urban landscape. This, however is completely different. Designed by a real artist with a passion for creating free flowing sculptural work.
    Princechazzy, Brighton, UK

    People of Hove - isn't this the perfect opportunity and time to shine....think of this in the future people may refer to your home as Hove and Brighton and not Brighton & Hove..... If Hove does not want it....Gehry please place it in my home town of Sheffield.
    Adam Ali, London, UK

    Some features of Gehry architectural design are stunning, but some features mock environmental concerns - in a developing era of increasing energy costs. Is the B&H Council aware of this?
    Harry, England

    What on earth is Brighton & Hove City Council doing?? How dare they take away the privilege of a sea view from our homes! These designs are out of context and totally inappropriate for Brighton. I challenge every resident in the area to stand and be counted, if these monstrosities go ahead then Brighton & Hove Council will pay the price!!
    Will Martin, UK

    Part of designing a building has to be making it fit in with the local architecture, otherwise every town will end up looking the same. Every town and city prides itself on having an identity, and I certainly wouldn't want the towers in my town, which is full of small buildings, the tallest building is only four storeys high. Leave the town alone.

    To suggest that the regeneration of Bilbao is due to it having a Gehry museum is ridiculous... The Guggenheim is the fruit of the recent economic and cultural regeneration of the Spanish Autonomous regions... it is iconic of change, not the cause of it... I don't see any similar economic or cultural revolution happening in Brighton and Hove...
    Mike Gulliver, UK

    I think any building would be an improvement to the area. It would also generate much needed income for the area.
    Ms MARSSHALL, England

    Your article would have readers believe that Brighton and Hove is a 'genteel seaside town'. In which case Birmingham is an isolated hamlet and Manchester a remote farming community. Barry Lane, from Eastbourne, which as we all know is a sprawling metropolis overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean.
    Barry Lane, UK

    Without knowing any more than this story, I say go for it. The UK is so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to architecture. If we never accept 'brave' architecture, we will never have wonderful buildings to look back on in hundreds of years time. I live in Bath where The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Pulteney Bridge and The Empire Hotel were all considered brave, cutting edge and perhaps even ugly when they were being designed and built - now look at us! Bring it on, I say.
    Adam Gretton, UK

    You wouldn't think from the complaints that the next landmark along the coast from the King Alfred is Shoreham Power station. The new development will bring much needed facilities and redevelopment to Hove. In reality Hove seafront is not "upmarket" but run-down and shabby and this amazing development will re-ignite the east of our city. The towers will increase the crowded city's housing; replace a third-rate swimming pool and a gym with twenty-first century facilities and turn a vacant plot into vibrant hub.
    Brian Butterworth, Hove, UK

    I would welcome it, I've lived in Hove all my life and believe me, it needs to be brought up to date! There have been some attempts to put up modern buildings in the city, but they end up looking generic. In this case it would be a truly unique piece that would enliven the surrounding area. Saying this, I do feel for the people who may have their sea views blocked!
    Scott, Brighton, UK

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