Brighton’s Guggenheim Museum or an unsightly Tin Can Alley? Plans drawn up by superstar architect Frank Gehry for the redevelopment of the King Alfred Leisure Centre on the Hove seafront divided opinion as soon as they were unveiled.
The ill-fated building was originally conceived in 1938 as Hove Marina but was almost immediately taken over by the Admiralty for the war effort and renamed in honour of the armoured cruiser HMS King Alfred. The building fell into disrepair in the post-war years and became a byword for municipal neglect.
In 2003, with cash splashing through the British economy like spray from the Channel, Gehry launched the £290 million project featuring a cluster of four towers – the tallest of them rising to 38 floors – next to a swimming pool, sports hall and a winter garden. The two tallest towers, comprising 240 luxury flats, would pay for the developers to build the £30 million pool for the city, plus a further 160 affordable homes in the lower towers. Gehry explained that the eccentric design was intended to evoke crumpled Victorian dresses.
As if that was not enough to get rivers of ink flowing to the national and local press, the rumoured involvement of actor Brad Pitt catapulted the scheme from the local government reporter’s desk into the celebrity correspondent’s in-tray. Pitt was expected to travel to Hove in August 2005, when the planning application for Gehry’s project was to be submitted. The actor was said to be mulling the purchase of a luxury duplex penthouse he was helping to design.
Josh Arghiros, joint managing director of Karis Holdings, the company charged with developing the site, told excited reporters: “Brad is looking for a place to live in Britain and it may well be that he’ll take one of the flats in Brighton. I haven’t got a clue what style he’ll go for. I understand from Frank that Brad’s design aspirations coincide with Frank’s aspirations for the project. I understand he has really good taste.”
Pitt wasn’t alone in his putative enthusiasm. Lord Bassam of Brighton (as he then wasn’t) wrote to the Argus defying the naysayers: “In five years time people will wonder what all the fuss was about. The scheme will be the envy of the nation and put the UK on the architecture map internationally.”
Others had a more muted response. Private Eye pointed out that Karis’s accounts were two years overdue and in 2004 had shown a deficit of £2 million. Arghiros was accused of hiring actors to march around Hove Town Hall pretending to be backers of the scheme.
Argus reporter Lawrence Marzouk launched a two-year Freedom of Information campaign to winkle out the fact that reluctant planning officers had been pressured into approving the ambitious plans.
Brad Pitt’s involvment was revealed to exist mainly in the overeheated minds of the plan’s boosters.
Five years after it had been sprung on an agog public, the plan was dead in the water, one more victim of the financial crash.
Asked about the scheme by Guardian journalist Jonathan Glancey, Gehry said: “Don’t go there! I guess I never did understand your planning system. I put it down to ‘scared of Frank’ syndrome.”