Visit a 1936 Modernist building on Brighton seafront

Tours inside the restored modernist Embassy Court building on Brighton seafront continue for the next three weekends (21-22, 28-29 May and 4-5 June 2016).

Modernist flats, Embassy Court, Brighton
Modernist flats, Embassy Court, Brighton

I went on last Saturday’s tour run by Cara Courage who has been involved with Embassy Court for 10 years now.

Embassy Court was designed by Wells Coates who had just designed the Isokon building in Hampstead. It was aimed at an upmarket clientele and initially the 72 flats were only available to rent. A year’s rent would have bought a whole house in Brighton back then.

Cara did a great job in explaining how the building worked. The passenger lifts are small as the occupants would not have carried their own shopping or luggage upstairs. There were servants, porters, and a goods lift for that. The kitchens in the flats are small because people would have simply eaten out, or in the restaurant that was once on the ground floor.

The Sun Terrace, Embassy Court
The Sun Terrace, Embassy Court

Upstairs we went out onto the sun terrace, which was a cocktail bar in the 1930s. My photo shows the view across Hove Lawns. Fans of the 1930s might fancy this on 21st or 22nd May: “The year is 1936 and the first residents have just moved into the most luxurious apartment block in Brighton and the first penthouses in the UK. You are cordially invited to join them… for a cocktail… 1930’s dress is optional.”

The corridors were made exactly the same width as those on a 1930s ocean liner, obviously very familiar to the first tenants. Below is a shot of Cara with one of the few remaining curved doors inside a flat.

Cara Courage showing a curved door inside Embassy Court
Cara Courage showing a curved door inside Embassy Court

Wells Coates also designed the famous round Ekco radios, and in a small museum in a disused tank room on the roof Cara was able to show us a TV, also designed by Wells Coates.

Cara Courage in the Embassy Court museum
Cara Courage in the Embassy Court museum

It wasn’t long before WW2 changed this wealthy enclave, the cocktail bar was replaced with anti-aircraft guns, and the beach was out of bounds.

Cara stressed that this was an experimental building, full of inherent problems. The building is on a steel frame which was coated with layers of concrete. The Crittall windows are also made of steel, and under attack from the salt water being blown off the sea. The photo below is from their little museum and shows the full horror of what was happening. The building’s frame is corroding and popping off the concrete. The brown streaks are from the steel window frames.

The neglected Embassy Court
The neglected Embassy Court

One landlord bought up a lot of flats and was refusing to pay for the maintenance, the building was decaying, and drug users were sleeping in the car park and urinating on the stairs. Nobody could get a mortgage here. The court cases went on for years.

It wasn’t until 2003 that restoration work was begun, with flat owners paying up to £100K each. It is still a high maintenance building with annual charges of £3-5K, but now everybody is aware that this is the price for living on the seafront, in a design classic.

Cara really knows this building inside out and is a mine of information. You can book the tours of Embassy Court here. Both Brighton Festival and Fringe are on, so you might find something else to do in Brighton during your visit.