Modernism on sea: a visit to Embassy Court

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BA (Hons) History of Art and Design student Graham Walton on a trip to Brighton’s Embassy Court

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Fig. 1 Embassy Court from the south east

Returning for our second year, I was pleased to hear that a course visit was planned to Modernist icon Embassy Court, a building I have always wanted to visit.

On arrival, we were shown into the foyer where an original mural has recently been repainted. This brightly-coloured mural is more or less the same as the original, painted when the building was new, but with odd additions such as the offshore Rampion Wind Farm, recently built off the Sussex coast.

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Fig. 2 The original mural in the entrance to Embassy Court.

We were given a very informative history and tour by one of the residents. The building was designed by the famous modernist architect Wells Coates and built in 1934- 35. This was a luxury block and rich and famous tenants rented flats at a high rent (rather than owning them). The flats employed a considerable number of servants, so owners could drive down from London and a liveried flunky open your door and take your bags to your flat, where a cocktail would await you. Illustrious tenants included Viscount Astor, Max Miller, Rex Harrison and Terence Rattigan.

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Fig. 3 The rear of the building.

The architecture reflects the thinking of Le Corbusier, with the use of reinforced concrete and strong horizontal lines. We were fortunate enough to be shown around one of the larger three-bed flats, which sat on the corner of the fifth floor. The owners had retained much of the original style, especially with the curved door where you enter the lounge although there was naturally a modern bathroom and kitchen. The owner explained some of the politics and problems affecting the building. After the Second World War the building continued to be a high class, luxury block, many of the flats were sold off to individual owners. The servants and the ground floor bank branch were lost and there were renovations in the 1960s. The freehold changed hands and the building was not well maintained, the leasehold association commissioned architects to upgrade the building and the expected cost was £4 million. Nothing happened to the building and it deteriorated. There was a protracted court case between the leaseholders and a company which owned many of the flats. Eventually leaseholders managed to get control of the block in 2003 and a new refurbishment plan was announced involving Sir Terence Conran. A survey showed that the building had deteriorated, originally the building had a communal hot water system, however the iron pipes encased in concrete rotted causing seepage through the concrete. New electrical heating systems were installed and the leaseholders had to pay a considerable amount of money to upgrade their flats.

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Fig. 4 An interior of a corner apartment.

According to the owner we met, currently the block is very well run and has a good contingency fund for maintenance. They had to keep the original Crittal metal windows (to comply with listed building requirements) and there is still much leakage through these windows especially in winter storms. We were taken to the top floor, where there was a store room with a fascinating pictorial history of the building and to the sundeck on the top floor. We were very fortunate in being able to visit this building on such a lovely sunny day and the view from the sundeck was magnificent. The thinking behind Embassy Court was that it was to resemble a luxury ocean liner and this concept is easily imagined from the sundeck.

I thoroughly enjoyed this visit and feel very privileged to be allowed to view one of the flats. Le Corbusier would have been very proud of this building!

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Fig. 5 Enjoying our visit.

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Fig. 6 Enjoying our visit.

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Fig. 7 Are we on an ocean liner?

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Fig. 8 Great views from Embassy Court towards Rampion Wind Farm

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