Conran's love affair down by the sea

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 14Feb2004

Sir Terence fell for it at first sight - and when the object of his affection began to lose its looks, his passion was rekindled. James Trollope reports.

Sir Terence Conran is hardly alone in having enjoyed a romantic encounter in Brighton. What's more unusual is that he remembers it with startling clarity, even though it happened more than 30 years ago. "Suddenly seeing this great building on the seafront was a bit of a shock and then I thought 'Oh, gosh that's so marvellous I'd like to live there'."

It may have been love at first sight, but Sir Terence never did move into Embassy Court. The founder of Habitat was far too busy with woks, duvets, chicken bricks and much else besides. But he's a faithful sort of chap and when he saw that the object of his affection had fallen on hard times, he felt he couldn't stand by. "It's a very bold and I think beautiful piece of 1930s architecture, of which there are very few examples in Britain."

Although they are both about the same age, Sir Terence has worn much better than the modernist, 12-storey apartment block, which some reckon is more eyesore than architectural gem. And yet, when it was designed by the Canadian architect Wells Coates in 1935, it was considered the very height of sophistication. There were penthouse suites, rooftop sundecks and celebrity residents, including Rex Harrison and Max Miller.

That it is now in such a sorry state is largely as a result of a long-running maintenance dispute between the former freeholder and the leaseholders, and even though the leaseholders now have control of the building, Sir Terence was appalled by the decay. "Parts of the outside rendering were falling off and the inside was almost like being in a rather run-down public lavatory; probably not as clean as a -run-down lavatory, in fact. So to see such a fine piece of architecture in such a condition was extremely sad. Elsewhere in Europe, you wouldn't find, for example, a Corbusier building being allowed to fall into that sort of state."

Now Sir Terence and his firm of designers, Conran and Partners, are involved in a plan to restore the building with support from council planners.

As a sign of good faith, he waived the initial consultation fee, which would have amounted to several thousand pounds. Now he is anxious that the real work should begin. "It's structurally sound but desperately dilapidated and it certainly needs to be restored and made a place where people want to live again."

The problem, as with all such projects, is the likely cost, estimated at about £5 million, which would be up to the residents to find. Although they are applying for lottery funding, grant aid may be limited because it is a private building. Rowena Easton, the director of the residents' company, Bluestorm, says the 72 flat owners will each have to stump up between £40,000 and £100,000, depending on the size of their property. She acknowledges that it's a big ask. "We're not rich. There are a number of artists like myself living here as well as students, pensioners and a group from the Sudan. But we're working very hard to save the building, which we think is as important to Brighton as the Royal Pavilion."

Since Sir Terence became involved, there are signs that the value of the apartments has risen. Rowena bought her one-bedroom flat for £40,000 a year and a half ago and it is now worth 20 per cent more. And while there used to be little demand for Embassy Court flats, in the past few months several have been sold at auction. "It has gone from a no-hope investment to an interesting one," says Stewart Gray of auctioneers Austin Gray. "But until plans are more advanced, I still reckon people are buying a little bit blind."

Conran architect Paul Zara is confident that the restoration will go ahead. "It's the best chance the building has ever had. Brighton property prices are high and for the first time mortgage companies are considering offering loans to the leaseholders. And it helps having a big noise such as Sir Terence on board. Now even local cab drivers are starting to believe it might happen."

Some preliminary concrete testing has already begun but the major work won't start until at least a decent chunk of the funding is in place.

" It is Brighton's outstanding 20th-century building," says Zara. "We're looking at developing a museum, a showroom apartment and even at the idea of opening up the magnificent roof terrace so the public can enjoy the building from within and without."

When Sir Terence first saw Embassy Court, he was building a Habitat store in Brighton, the third of the chain, which was eventually sold to Ikea.

Since then he has had several other adventures in retail, restaurants and design, but his affection for the iconic Brighton apartment block has remained undimmed.

"Like Embassy Court," he says, "I'm a child of the Thirties and although, thankfully, bits haven't fallen off me yet, that wonderful building is an important part of our heritage.

"In years to come, I trust it will be better preserved than I am."