The city-centre Circus Street development combines housing, offices and a dance venue in a district that feels as if it has evolved over time
Brighton is an energetic city, a place of wild weekends as witnessed by the stags and hens who weave their way through the streets. A large student population, over 30,000 strong, spills on to the pavements. It is, to steal a phrase favoured by estate agents, ‘vibrant’.
All the more remarkable then, that in the centre of Brighton, architect shedkm has created a dense new neighbourhood that still breathes calm into a tightly packed urban landscape.
The site was once home to Brighton’s Municipal Market but had lain empty and derelict for decades. Shedkm won a competition for the project with a collection of 10 buildings arranged on a 1ha site. The decision was taken at competition stage to give a separate identity to each part of the offer rather than creating mega blocks. The result is a scheme that feels as if it has evolved over time, with each element – private residential accommodation, 450 student bedrooms, 2,800m2 of office space and a new cultural venue in the form of a home for South East Dance – having a distinct feel.
Circus Street has been funded through a public-private partnership between developer U+I and Brighton & Hove City Council, and delivered via a design and build contract. it comprises a series of six-to-eight-storey concrete slab blocks punctuated by two towers – one residential and one student accommodation – arranged around two public squares. Shedkm used a map of the city from 1792 as a blueprint for the development, referencing Brighton’s historic street patterns. As part of the planning application the architects undertook a photographic study of the surrounding area, creating a taxonomy of motifs and materials to inform the design approach.
The inclusion of The Dance Space as a key part of the development brings an important cultural asset to the scheme and will draw visitors in. Designed as a galvanised cube, the building lends Circus Street a contemporary and edgy feel. Copper fire stairs that spiral up the exterior have become a bold emblem of the site. South East Dance had the full support of the city council and the design team worked closely with the arts charity to create a functional building that met dancers’ needs and could comfortably host the wider community.
The challenge was to create a building that felt open and accessible but performed acoustically. Shedkm associate and Circus Street design guardian Helen Misselbrook likens the design process to a game of Tetris, with building performance maximised by locating the spaces where they needed to be.
Connection to the public realm comes via huge 4m-high bifold doors at ground level, which also provide happenstance views of the building’s interior life, from kids’ classes and rehearsals to performances and workshops. The cube is further perforated by the floor-to-ceiling window of the main double-height performance auditorium. The building's interior fit-out bears witness to the commitment of South East Dance to ensure the building is fully accessible both physically and sensorially. Following consultation on visual impairment, neuro-divergence and dementia, each floor is painted a different colour to easily locate yourself within the building. Misselbrook says she plans to use this multi-stranded way of thinking on future schemes.
Three blocks of student accommodation in the form of stacked brick boxes sit at the ‘back’ of a sloping site, on its eastern edge, which sits 7m above Circus Street on the western edge and faces an existing housing estate. At the planners’ request, the new blocks are set into the sloping ground and massed to create a street-scaled relationship with the existing four-storey buildings.
While the original masterplan intended the student housing to be open and permeable, creating flow through the whole site, concerns around safeguarding resulted in two separate sections of landscaping forming a buffer between students and residents in the street above. Oriel windows slant views over the rest of the scheme, adding privacy to what could have felt an intrusive proximity.
A fourth distinct student block sits opposite the dance building, separated by a piece of landscaped public realm that will be used by South East Dance to host outdoor performances. Time will tell how the residents of the blocks closest to the building respond to the noise and concentrated influx of visitors. A happy coexistence may take some careful negotiation.
The private residential blocks provide 114 one and two-bed flats for private rent and 28 affordable homes. The blocks are arranged around a rectangular landscaped public square, giving the domestic familiarity of a terraced street. It’s a move inspired by Brighton’s famous Lanes, a short distance to the east. Cores run front to back so that front doors are situated on both elevations, animating both sides of each block with the hope of encouraging chance meetings and avoiding any street having a ‘back of house’ feel. Gabled rooflines and the balcony-studded elevations are composed to suggest rows of slender townhouses. Clad in dark grey planks, the buildings also recall Hastings’ distinctive weatherboarded net huts, a geographical dislocation that raised a few eyebrows locally.
A different architectural heritage is brought to the white residential tower on the corner of the site. Its steel balconies reference the regency proportions of buildings on the nearby Grand Parade. The office block at the opposite corner of the site is another pale accent, with a glazed brick facade and a silver saw-tooth roof. Colour is used sparingly at Circus Street, with only use six different tones across the whole masterplan. The use of gold and silver nods to the civic architecture of Brighton and the emblematic Brighton Pavilion.
Attention to detail throughout Circus Street further elevates the architectural quality of the scheme, suggesting this really is somewhere special. Landscaping by J&L Gibbons softens the grid, creating spaces that feel more organic, while outdoor lighting by Michael Grubb Studio creates little moments of joy. Public art installations include sculptural bollards designed by Antony Gormley and a large-scale installation by artist Alex Chinneck – an unravelling spiral staircase on the side of one of the student blocks, entitled A Spring in Your Step.
The scheme has been 10 years in the making with progress delayed by the pandemic as well as reactions to the Grenfell fire, which necessitated a change of all external wall build-ups. But the slow process allowed an attention to detail that has paid off.
The project began with extensive consultation exercises, with more than 100,000 visitors attending activities in the old market building over a two-year period. The early decision to a create buildings with unique personalities led to what Misselbrook describes as an incredibly complex build with every building needing its own M&E and facade strategy. Each has achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating, using photovoltaic panels on roofs, a CHP energy centre for hot water and space heating, and MVHR in all units as well as passive measures such as careful orientation to limit solar gain in summer.
Shedkm is known for its bold, geometric architecture. Circus Street feels like an evolution. It takes cues from Brighton’s chaotic personality, the chance proximities, the mix of materials and colour palette, and creates a neighbourhood that seems truly settled on the site. Circus Street is an assured piece of architecture that deserves the plaudits it has already begun to receive. The stags and hens may sway by, oblivious, but Brighton has a beautiful new neighbourhood.
Vanessa Norwood is a curator and writer, and creative director of the Building Centre
Construction cost £100m
Total masterplan development area 10,000m2
Dance Space GIA 1,305m2
Dance Space GIFA cost per m2 £3,908
Main contractor Henry Construction
Planning architect and design guardian Shedkm
Executive architect TP Bennett
Structural engineer Manhire Associates
Services engineer Foreman Roberts
Employer’s agent Gleeds
Quantity surveyor Faithful & Gould
Facade consultant Pure Exteriors
Landscape architect J&L Gibbons
External lighting designer Michael Grubb Studio
Acoustic consultants Ramboll Group (design), KP Acoustics (site)