Pencils Only: Walking Around The Keep

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Three weeks ago we had a guided tour of The Keep, the state-of-the-art new Sussex archive centre out at Falmer. It’s funny that this is a space with powerful, heavily loaded resonance (both positive and negative) in partnership with the Royal Pavilion & Museums; while the vast majority of the wider local population haven’t even heard about it yet.

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The Keep is this lone white building, standing in what feels like the middle of nowhere, though it’s just a 10 minute walk from Falmer Station and the Amex Stadium. It looms above trees and fields, angular and almost too clean to fathom. At the same time, it’s an enormous, supremely ambitious archiving project, stretched across East Sussex, connecting some of the county’s key organisations by physically moving them into this shared space. It’s so important, they’re building a new bus-stop for it.

I’d been in residence at The Royal Pavilion & Museums for almost a month before hearing a word about The Keep – and it still often gets talked of in hushed tones, though now the move is underway and many documents are packed up, it is an inevitable elephant in the room at some meetings.

My first impression was bittersweet with a touch of ambivalence; filtered through the lens of meeting Brighton History Centre staff on the day after they’d marked the closing of their BHC library, upstairs at the museum. There was an uncertain future. There were forlorn balloons.

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This is what The Keep will hold: everything from Brighton History Centre goes, including staff. The project sees the merging of several iconic record and archive-keeping bodies, for example East Sussex Records Office at Lewes Maltings. On opening it will hold six miles of artefacts, some dating back 900 years. And with that name? So obviously, yes, it did all feel a bit Game Of Thrones ominous.

But not after we’d visited. No zealot like a convert: I’m sold. I love The Keep. There’s something magical about walking around a brand new, completely unused building. The Keep feels still giftwrapped – they had plastic down. But far more importantly (and you’ll appreciate how rare this is in any aspect of life), it is beautiful, precisely and intelligently designed to do its intended job.

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Our guide was Wendy Walker (on the left in this photo), who has overseen much of the project development for years and knows it inside out, wielding a vast array of stats from memory. Before the tour started, we were a loose group of interested parties and local journalists, gathered in a classroom, drinking coffee and eating biscuits, whispering to each other. Tension broken by an intern’s ringtone loudly playing Marvyn Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ into the quiet. The tour wasn’t a hard sell, in fact quite a dry, technical deconstruction of how the centre will work for both public and archivists. But it did seem to do the trick.

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I love this shot of the Argus photographer because the photo he’s taking at that very moment is in this Argus news article, so my photo is like a tiny one-shot “Making Of…” documentary.

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The Keep is constructed with some of the best tech I’ve ever seen in architecture and design, yet it’s built to preserve remnants of the past – and this jigsaw puzzle of the creakily ancient and mysteriously futuristic is at its heart. The building work took roughly 20 months and is now complete, with keys handed to the archive teams, to begin the mammoth task of moving everything in. Over summer, starting with East Sussex Record Office, they’ll pack, transport and unpack archives from eight locations.

The first 3,500 books from Brighton History Centre have already gone there, yet that is just 1% of what has to go from Brighton & Hove. It took them over a year just to barcode everything. So the sheer scale of the project emerges – and pretty much everything will be in place by late September.

The Keep is scheduled to open to the public in November, after a series of testing exercises. And even Carolyn Trant’s sculpted frieze of Sussex icons, set high up along the side wall, is a perfect fit.

Inside, it is stunning design and particularly strong environment control, all aimed at preserving safely the local history. You could knock out the power and not lose a degree of temperature in 24 hours. Even in a major building fire, the controlled areas will stay safe for four hours. Even the lifts are designed so smoothly you can’t feel them, built to transfer large glass slides and old papers and such, without bumping them around.

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I wonder why archiving gets such care. We’re a funny bunch, humans, devoting such resource, thoughtful planning and energy to looking after these old bits of paper. At the same time, walking around the project gives one great faith in the ability of local government to think beyond itself, to take longer strides than electoral and populist concerns normally allow. It reminds me of escape, resilience and healthy long-term-ism. It reminds me of those stories about art being hidden during the war, taken from galleries and tucked away in caves or bunkers in the countryside. It reminds me of that scene in Children Of Men at Battersea Power Station, where even in the face of human catastrophe, they’re trying to save British art for unknown, unforseeable future viewers.

I don’t really mean The Keep is like any of those things, it just conjures up that stuff. It feels (it is) remarkably, vividly, future-proof.

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For most of the last (almost) decade that we’ve lived in Brighton, there’s always been one surefire place to go in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse. Head straight up to Hollingbury where the Argus building is, opposite that big Asda. Right on the edge of town for an easy getaway into Sussex countryside. Great look-out locations all around, easy to defend, with enough height to look down on most incoming roads. Also, the discretion of a boring industrial estate. There are relatively few people already up there. There’s the Argus office itself with decent comms facilities, maybe still old printing presses downstairs, while the superstore is ideal for supplies. Especially if it’s fully stocked and we get there first, it’d keep us going for a long time. That road even has a small police holding station with cells in.

So it’s always been the first choice, until now…

Now, we’ll run for The Keep.

Chris T-T, Blogger in Residence

7 Responses

  1. jawils

    “… standing in what feels like the middle of nowhere, though it’s just a 10 minute walk from Falmer Station and the Amex Stadium.”

    Isn’t that because Falmer Station and the Amex Stadium ARE in the middle of nowhere? 😉

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