John Small

Elaine Evans interviews - John Small

A man of quiet influence in the City

On my way to our meeting, I mused on a suitable opening paragraph for this piece. “If you were to pass this unassuming man in the anonymity of Waitrose, you could not guess how much influence he has wielded both locally and in Sussex.” However, this idea was blown out of the water not long into our interview, when the subject turned to the media. John mentioned that from time to time he is interviewed on the radio or television about local issues to do with conservation and the built environment, and that sometimes the next day someone will say to him,” Excuse me but weren’t you on television last night?” So let me start again.

To use an old cliché, if John Small were a stick of rock, you would find “architect” all the way through. I knew that John is a retired architect, but the theme of buildings ran through almost all his answers to my questionnaire.

We met in his lovely flat in Furze Croft. The spacious living area is full of light and calm, and the most striking piece of furniture is a design classic from the 1950s, an Ernest Race sofa upholstered in plain red. The whole effect of the room is very modern, minimalist without brutalism.

John trained as an architect in Brighton but practised mainly in London. He worked a good deal of his time on buildings in West Africa, which necessitated fairly frequent site visits, mainly in Nigeria.

I was intrigued to learn that in the 1960s he had designed his own house – how many people can say that? In fact, the pair of houses are still there, just off Dyke Road. In time the family outgrew the house, so moved to a six bedroom house in Windlesham Gardens. “Sheer magic”, John says, as he could walk to the station, the children to their schools and an easy walk for everyone to the town centre and the seafront.

Sadly John became a widower, so moving to a flat in 2000 was a practical move which has worked out well.

John may be retired but he is very busy indeed. He is the Honorary Secretary of the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove, and the Chairman of the Conservation Advisory Group. They advise the Council and perform a valuable service to the community by keeping the closest of eyes on what is going on locally, particularly in relation to the 33 Conservation Areas in Brighton, Hove and Portslade.

John is also a Patron of the Sussex Heritage Trust, having retired from their committee. The Trust considers and makes awards in a number of categories across the county. These are usually to companies, practices and councils. One award is person of the year, which John won this year, jointly. He joked that he does not know if he is "person for half a year" or "half a person for the whole year", but as he won the award for conservation in Sussex in the context of buildings, and the other winner was more concerned with the countryside, it has worked out quite neatly.

In answer to the question "What do you consider your most satisfying achievment in life (so far)?" John answered. "Thinking that St John the Baptist Church, Palmeira Square could be used for more that 2.5 hours a week - and then helping to achieve its multiple use now. (It took almost 30 years to complete the adaptation")

This impressed me very much, as I did not know of John's connection with the project. The redevelopment of the building is masterly. The area for worship is still of a generous size, but rooms have been fashioned out of the remaining space to make the Cornerstone Community Centre. Many groups use these rooms all year round. Hire of the rooms is highly prized and vacancies rarely come up.  The centre really does provide an invaluable asset for the community.

I attend two groups at the centre myself, so I owe John a personal debt of gratitude. I would also like to thank him for agreeing to this interview. He normally turns down such requests, but agreed because until recently he was himself a valued member of the Planning Monitoring Group of our Society, and of course remains an enthusiastic member of  Hove Civic.

Mini Questionnaire

When did you come to live in Hove.

What do you like about your flat?
Furze Croft, whilst only slightly younger than me, works as well as it did when it was built (I wish I did!), the flats are very well planned to make the best of the sunshine and views

Where would you take a first time visitor to Brighton / Hove?
The Royal Pavilion, followed by Kemp Town and Brunswick Town, St Bartholomew's Church, St Michael and All Angels, St Andrew's Waterloo Street, and round the corner to Embassy Court; these are the top seven among my 50 building (short) tour of Brighton and Hove

Favourite restaurant?
St John, St John Street, London, with my elder daughter. The Macleay Street Bistro, Sydney, with my younger daughter

Ideal dinner guest?
Frank Gehry (+ both my daughters, of course)

Favourite author or composer?
Bach, Mozart, Handel

Ideal holiday?
Looking at buildings, somewhere different

When asked, "Any future ambitions/desires?" John replied, "To hear people say 'I didn't think I was going to like it, but now it's built, I really do!' about a new building in Brighton & Hove." Well there are several controversial projects being proposed for the city at the present time - I wonder if he had one of these in mind? I think the answer must be - wait and see!