The building from the southeast
|Location||Brighton and Hove|
|Address||Edward Street, Carlton Hill BN88 1AH|
|Town or city||Brighton|
|Owner||American Express Europe Ltd|
|Diameter||300,000 square feet (28,000 m2)|
|Design and construction|
|Architecture firm||Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners|
Amex House, popularly nicknamed The Wedding Cake, is the European headquarters of American Express, the multinational financial services company. It is located in the Carlton Hill area of Brighton, part of the English city of Brighton and Hove. The nine-floor building, designed by American architecture firm Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners, was commissioned by the company in 1977 to consolidate their operations in Brighton, which had been spread over several sites. The white and blue structure, a landmark on the city skyline, has received both praise and criticism for its distinctive style. It is expected to be demolished by 2016 after a new building on the spare land on the site is completed; redevelopment work started in 2010, and the company hopes to move into the replacement building in 2012.
Brighton grew rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries, prompted by its development into a fashionable seaside resort. New residential areas were developed around the core of the old fishing village of Brighthelmston. Rich visitors and residents were housed in set-piece Regency squares and terraces on the seafront, but the large number of poor people attracted to the town from across Sussex and beyond by the prospect of work lived in the smaller terraced streets of new suburbs on the surrounding hillsides. One of these—and the most poverty-stricken and densely populated—was Carlton Hill, an area east of Old Steine and the Royal Pavilion and separated from the higher-class seafront development by Edward Street. This road, leading east towards Kemp Town and Black Rock, was a major shopping area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the area declined after World War II and much of the northern side was cleared between the 1950s and the 1970s. Road widening took up some of the released land, but large areas were still available for redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s.
American Express had a longstanding presence in Brighton and elsewhere in Sussex, and in 1968 they moved their Mechanical Accounting division on to one site—an office building (previously owned by another company) on Edward Street. As the firm's European operations grew, it sought a larger, purpose-built office in which to base its European headquarters. Land between the north side of Edward Street and Carlton Hill's main road (also called Carlton Hill) was available, and American Express acquired it and proposed the construction of a new office block as part of a major redevelopment scheme for the area. British architects Gollins, Melvin, Ward & Partners were commissioned in early 1977 to design the building. It opened on 15 September 1977, at a cost of between £10 million and £15 million, and was the first structure in England to use glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) panels. The office was the base for the corporation's European customer service and card accounting operations. The layered effect of the series of white horizontal lines of GRP panels prompted the popular local nickname "The Wedding Cake".
By 2010, American Express was the largest private-sector employer in the city of Brighton and Hove: about 3,000 people worked in the 300,000-square-foot (28,000 m2) Amex House building. The company was estimated to generate £300 million per year to the city's economy—about 7% of its total value. In the early 21st century, the company considered moving its operations away from Brighton; but in September 2008 it announced plans for a new headquarters building on land behind Amex House, which would eventually replace the 1970s building. The company bought the freehold of the land from Brighton and Hove City Council in May 2009; various conditions were attached, such as a requirement for American Express to stay in Brighton for the long term. Planning permission for the new development was granted on 4 November 2009, with further conditions attached—in particular, American Express would have to give the neighbouring Carlton Hill Primary School £300,000 to compensate for the negative effect the new building would have on its playground, which would be overlooked. EPR Architects Ltd were awarded the design contract, and Sir Robert McAlpine will build the new office.
Site clearance work for the new office, which is being built on Amex House's car park, began in January 2010. The site is about 375,000 square feet (34,800 m2), and the building will have about 200,000 square feet (19,000 m2) of office space when complete. There will be an onsite gymnasium, parking for more than 100 cars and better vehicular access from the street. The sloping site means that the building will have nine storeys on one side but only five on the opposite side, and there will be basement space in addition. After the building is completed in about 2012, employees will be moved across to it and Amex House will be demolished; this is expected to happen by 2016.
The Modernist Amex House is a local landmark, "dominat[ing] the sweep of Carlton Hill" and even (to one architectural historian) evoking Thunderbirds. Its clean lines of contrasting blue-tinted glass and white GRP give the building an "emphatic horizontality" which is made less harsh by the substantial chamfering of each corner and the set-back top storey. Although the building is large and visually dominant, it is not merely another tower block in an area which was extensively redeveloped with such buildings in the 1960s. It has instead been called "a much more successful addition to Edward Street than its contemporary neighbours", which include the law courts and Brighton's main police station, and "one of the most original of Brighton's modern buildings". Nevertheless, the building has been described as a "major intrusion" on the adjacent Carlton Hill conservation area, "significantly affect[ing] its setting".
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