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Planning Application BH2013/04348 and application for Listed Building Consent Ref. BH2013/0435 – The Hippodrome and Hippodrome House

The Brighton Society submits its comments on the above applications.

1.    Background
The Brighton Society attended a joint presentation with the Regency Society, at which the draft proposals were explained in June 2013 by Richard Coleman City Designer on behalf of Alaska Development Consultants.

The  Brighton Society subsequently wrote to Richard Coleman (letter dated 29 June 2013), setting out our comments and made a number of suggestions as to how the proposals might be improved. That letter is attached as Appendix 1.

2.    Applications for Planning and Listed Building Consent.
We have a number of concerns about the developed proposals.  These
relate to two main areas:

1.  The Hippodrome itself
2.  The new buildings proposed in Middle Street and Ship Street (including the “arboricultural” cladding to the new auditoria in the courtyard off Ship Street).

2.1    The Hippodrome
2.1.1    New raised floor
Our letter of 29 June 2013 raised concerns about the relationship of the new raised floor to the balconies.  We are still concerned that the richly decorated balconies – including those each side of the proscenium which are proposed to be raised – will lose their existing ‘overlooking’ relationship with the main space, and will visually appear as a low perimeter bulkhead, semi-concealed behind tables and chairs.
The character of the original balconies will be disguised and reduced to insignificant visual elements within the whole space.

We cannot support this.  The former spatial interaction between the main auditorium and the balconies created by the differing levels and the balcony fronts would be so diminished as to become meaningless in terms of retaining its former essential quality and character.

English Heritage in its letter to Indigo Developments dated 9 August 2013 made a similar point.

We feel strongly that none of these issues have  been resolved.  Instead of creating a distinct gap or separation between the new floor and crucial parts of the original fabric, the new floor gives the impression of running through below the balconies which achieves the opposite effect, destroying the original concept of the balconies hanging in space and overlooking the auditorium. The status of the balcony fronts is diminished to that of a low perimeter wall semi-concealed by tables and chairs, and inadequately protected by just a low knee rail.

2.1.2    Visual link between the ground floor restaurant and the main auditorium
Our letter of June 29 2013 suggested that there should be a strong visual and spatial relationship between the entrances to the building from Duke’s Lane and from Middle Street to the vast volume of the dome itself.

The current proposals show some form of visual and physical link between the first floor (circle level) Cinema Foyer, but what form this will take and the extent of it is not clear from the drawings.  The drawing gives the impression that there will only be a narrow slot at eye height, an inadequate expression of the dramatic views between the two spaces.  More details are required.

Our suggestion that the ground floor foyer and restaurant area off Middle Street should be linked visually with the auditorium above in order to allow stunning views of the auditorium ceiling seems to have been followed up partially, though it is not what we had in mind.

It appears from the illustration in DAS Fig 47a, that part of the already low ceiling in the restaurant – and presumably part of the floor of the auditiorium above – is to be glazed. This does nothing for either space.  It neutralises that part of the floor in the auditorium and would have to be screened off somehow to prevent people walking on it. An unsatisfactory design solution.

Given the three-dimensional possibilities presented by the proximity of the double stairs and raised galleries in this area of the new floor, there would seem to be an opportunity to create a more dramatic visual and spatial relationship.  This is a spatially dramatic Grade II* Listed Building.  The proposed solution of a glass floor/ceiling is not good enough.  It is disappointing when alterations to a building of such drama and importance fall far short of the quality of the original.

2.1.3    Importance of detailing
The detail of how effectively such alterations are carried out is important at this stage of design.    It is important that any Planning or Listed Building Approval is qualified by making it clear that it will be subject to conditions requiring further approval of proposed details.

3.    New building proposals
The scheme  lies within a Conservation Area.  The way in which new elements relate to the existing urban fabric in context, form, scale, proportion and materials is extremely important.  We noted in our letter of 29 June 2013 that “The key is to create satisfactory relationships using form, scale, proportion and materials without resorting to pastiche.”

English Heritage made the following comment:
“The design of the new-build elements within the yard, particularly the new cinema entrance attached to Hippodrome House will need to be carefully detailed so as to strike an appropriate balance between contextual design and modern intervention.  The external treatment of the extension should be designed and executed to a high standard.”

The current proposals fail to match these criteria. The designs for the new buildings do nothing to enhance the quality of the streetscape or relate sympathetically to the Conservation Area.

3.1    Middle Street elevation
The designers claim “Figure 59 demonstrates how the scale of the new cinema entrance is a direct response to the composition of Hippodrome House and therefore continues the rhythm of the historic elevation.”

–    The form of the new Cinema entrance building does not have any satisfactory relationship to Hippodrome House.  The insertion of an uncompromisingly modern, boxy black tile-clad portico and glass façade into a contextual setting between the Regency style Hippodrome House on one side and 19th Century 3-storey pitched roof buildings on the other, is unsympathetic. The proportion bears no relationship to that of either of its neighbours – drawing lines which do not exist (DAS Fig 59), on the elevation of Hippodrome House demonstrates the futility of that argument.

–    The materials of glass and black tile have no precedent in that part of central Brighton. To claim that the tiles relate to the tradition of mathematical tiles is wrong – the scale of the tile and the way light reflects off the small-scale glossy curved hand-made mathematical tiles is quite different from the flat, machine made, lifeless nature of the tiles proposed.

The design is just not good, nor sensitive, nor sympathetic enough, to be appropriate to  the Conservation Area in which it is located.

3.2    Ship Street elevation
In townscape terms, the elevations of the new buildings proposed in Ship Street are much worse than the earlier draft proposals shown in DAS Fig 25.   This early design which looked promising, and created a sensitive relationship to the other buildings in Ship Street seems to have been abandoned in favour of something which bears a closer relationship to the boxy modern design of the Middle Street building which we have criticised above.  It is depressing that this appears to have been the result of discussions with the Planning Officers (see  DAS para 5.3).

Just as for the Middle Street building, this is not sensitive, nor sympathetic enough to the Conservation Area in which it is located. It should be re-designed.

3.3    New cinema auditorium building in the yard – a lost garden re-invented

“Figures 15-16 illustrate the development of schematic ideas for the elevation treatment for the proposed cinema auditoria that would echo the lost Hippodrome House garden. The ideas incorporate the theme of an orchard in the form of a stylised tree motif etched on to glass rainscreen cladding together with a ‘living’ green wall and green roof features. The living wall would form the canopy of the orchard trees and would also add a sizeable element of soft landscape treatment in an area that is otherwise largely devoid gardens and soft landscape.” – DAS Para 4.2.4.

This statement is an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. How can the ”re-invention” of a lost Hippodrome House garden and possible orchard justify an insensitive attempt to disguise the appearance of a large scale blank-walled building in a Conservation Area in the centre of Brighton? An honest brick wall like the existing one would be far preferable.

4.    Conclusions
The applicant’s own Heritage Statement para 4.4(iii) is not worth acknowledging as it does not relate to the applicant’s design solutions.

We were initially generally in support in principle of the early proposals presented to us, and considered that, although restoring the building to its former use as a theatre would be the ideal solution, the Hippodrome’s poor condition and the risk that if restoration does not happen soon may well cause it to be lost entirely to the City.

There are too many areas of the design which are poor. We are concerned that the fact that the building is at risk if the applications are refused may act to to justify aspects of the design which under more normal circumstances, would not be permitted in a Conservation Area.

The developed design is worse in many respects than the initial design approach indicated it would be, and we feel unable to  support the applications as they stand at present.

We would suggest that there are only two options available to the Council:

(i)    If the Council were minded to grant approval, this should be subject to certain  “reserved matters”.  These would include:
–     satisfactory details being provided of the relationships between the new and existing parts of the building;
–    re-designed elevations of the new buildings on Middle Street and Ship Street (including the cinema auditorium), which would relate more sympathetically to the Conservation Area;

(ii)    Reject the current applications and request that the applicants re-apply with more acceptable and sympathetic proposals within a limited period of time.
The building would survive a few more months to enable this to happen.

Yours faithfully,

Malcom Dawes BSc, MSc, CEng, MICE, MIStructE
Chair, Brighton Society

Jeremy Mustoe MA (Cantab), Dip Arch
Trustee, Brighton Society

Cc English Heritage