Epic yet compact and welcoming, the ocean-facing house by Pilbrow & Partners preserves a piece of the Hove seafront, combining references both to that heritage and the exotic
‘There is an interesting ambivalence to the building which I wasn’t expecting,’ says Keb Garavito Bruhn, founding partner at Pilbrow & Partners. ‘A lot of people see it as a rebirth… They don’t acknowledge it as a new building.’
Medina House on Hove seafront is a radical architectural sidestep from the post-war apartment buildings either side, the cottages behind and regency townhouses closer to Brighton city centre. This curious light brick building has arched windows, a garden wall colonnade and zinc dormers – and it’s sizeable, a fortress on the front, walled on all sides. It abounds with references, but is courageous and contemporary.
Medina House is a private house with a public history, much preceding its present incarnation. It isn’t difficult to find out who it is for, but this is the first time the house has been published in full. What’s interesting about the house is its visibility.
It is located on an unusual part of the seafront where the buildings abut the promenade, one narrow road between it and the beach. Surrounding buildings are mostly former fishermen’s cottages, separated by passages known as ‘twittens’ that lead to the sea.
The site was part of a Victorian bathing complex bridging Sussex Road that was built in 1896 and used seawater for its pools and slipper baths. The women’s bathhouse on one side, and the men’s on the other, are long gone.
Pilbrow & Partners was brought onto the project in 2015 via a mutual friend of the client and Garavito Bruhn. Initially they intended to work with the existing structure; the former red brick bathhouse with a Dutch gable and entrance facing the beach that had been partially rendered in the 1920s. But after working on it for four months the team realised the bricks were too weak to be reused, which meant starting again from scratch.
‘It was an abused building,’ Garavito Bruhn adds. ‘It had had many owners, including a diamond merchant, then it was squatted and suffered fires. The last owner proposed towers on the site.’
The client, a musician and author couple, lived nearby and bought the site to preserve it. On a clear day you can see the white cliffs along the coast. Next door is Marrocco’s, an Italian restaurant known for its ice cream. The brief consequently was to maintain the qualities that led them to buy it – its aspect to the sea – but also create a sense of privacy with spaces of reprieve. And to make it as sustainable as possible too.
‘There was a huge affection for the building,’ says Garavito Bruhn. ‘It’s built into the collective imagination. People in the area knew its stages of existence and had strong connections to it.’
Consultation was intensive, with many interested groups for preservation that had started under the previous owner. One of these had recommended that it should be a family home, a stance which the council had adopted, so that was never in question.
‘The design is a significant departure in lots of ways,’ explains Garavito Bruhn. ‘Although we intentionally recalled the form of the gable and basic roof, we wanted to tie it in more broadly with the landscape, the chalky cliffs that have stratification and erosion. Rather than a building that expresses as an assembly of components, could the building have a sense of being eroded? The wing emerges from the main mass and erodes towards the east, responding also to the changing heights of the urban situation.’
Once it was decided to demolish and rebuild, changes key to adapting a public to a private building were possible. This included moving the entrance from the promenade to Sussex Road and creating another to the garden from the twitten on the eastern side, to avoid the stones and water damage blown up by bad weather and for additional privacy. The other change was raise the building by around 2m, for these reasons and because at a certain point Pilbrow & Partners realised the internal spaces were a bit squat.
Nevertheless, overall, in form and arrangement, the building closely follows what was there before. The main volume remains perpendicular to the beach with its gable, then to the east is a lower wall where the pool had been. The three-bay window arrangement recalls the previous facade, replicated again on the garden wall, while the dormers are borrowed from the former men’s bathhouse. ‘We spent a lot of time drawing on what was there previously,’ Garavito Bruhn adds.
The rear side wing is new, with a flat roof rather than pitched, and from the street adopts a more moneyed tropical architectural language with external plantation shutters, veranda and balconies. It is generally looser, more informal than the main portion of the house. Across the project, timber for the doorways, window frames, shutters and cladding is saltwater-resistant Accoya. The bricks are Petersen Kolumba, selected to emphasise horizontality and stratification, but also as the whitest bricks with colour-changing properties. In the space of our two-hour visit, the building changed from yellow to white and grey. The reveals of the arches and windows are split brick specials that turn the corner to create a sense of ‘carving into the facade’.
One of the trickier aspects of the elevation was how to deal with the garden wall windows. The practice had sought advice from engineers but eventually turned to find a solution through model-making and testing. The glass stops the prevailing south west wind, while the open arched transoms allow some wind through to prevent a whirlwind developing in the courtyard.
Inside, the building reflects the language of the exterior. From the main entrance hall there is an immediate sense of connection to all parts of the house. To the left is the WC and a small passage to a darker writing room. Ahead is the garden, a stair to the basement with another flying overhead to the bedrooms, and to the right steps through a pantry up to the main living room. This, as expressed externally, is on a grand scale – a 4.8m tall lateral crossing barrel vaulted ceiling, tall windows facing the sea, French doors opening onto the garden, a stone fireplace, solid oak floorboards and Venetian plaster that continues throughout the house.
The kitchen comes first, with a huge hearth for an Aga backed by blue Moroccan splashback tiles. The sitting area is beyond, with dining space along the elevation of the courtyard. Looking back, the stair is open to the room and a mezzanine desk space overlooks the living area. You can catch glimpses of the galleried landing library beyond. The scale is epic, but compact and welcoming.
The views of the sea continue from the tryptic of windows in the garden where the landscape has been designed as diagonal planting between trees by Arabella Lennox-Boyd. Raised above the road with frosted lower glass panels, it gives you a sense of remoteness from potential crowds of visitors and the crashing waves outside. To the rear of the garden under the wing is a sunken covered outdoor lounge with clerestorey windows around the perimeter. Here the original tiles of the bathhouse have been preserved in situ, giving the feel of an archaeological discovery. However, the huge solid rectangular columns that hold up this and the accommodation wing above (music room on the first floor and bedroom on the second) create a heavy almost post-war Corbusian modernist feel. Yet the balcony from the mezzanine library interrupts that feeling again, taking you to an Italian hilltop town of narrow streets and houses.
It’s a building with multiple faces, histories and geographies
The immoveable Moorish influences on the exterior disentangle into a building with multiple faces, histories and geographies over a seemingly extended period. It’s a joy that conversely creates a sense of permanence.
Upstairs, back in the main section of the house, is the master suite. To the left is an atmospheric wallpapered ‘opium den’, before the spaces bisect into a dressing space and bathroom, then the bedroom – directly above the living room and enjoying the same sky and sea views. The architecture – vaults, floors, windows, walls – is overlaid with sumptuous interior design by Studio Ashby, which has a fitting opulence. The stair to the second floor is enclosed. Here, windows to the north overlook the cottages and taller surrounding apartment blocks. They mean there is a variety of views, should one ever tire of looking at the sea.
This issue features two houses. It’s fantastic that they can’t be compared. Yet each has a formality and laid-backness that the architecture creates in different ways. What is particularly compelling about Medina House is that this is ambitious architecture commissioned by a private client that is in full view. You can stumble upon it, soak it up, develop an opinion, post pictures of it on social media, have conversations about it with your friends, critique it. What better kind of architecture is there than that?
Architect Pilbrow & Partners
Structural engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan
MEP Atelier Ten
Interiors Studio Ashby
Landscape designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd
Heritage and planning Montagu Evans
Contractor Size Group
Contractor’s architect Formation