Brighton developer Josh Arghiros is the kind of man who knows what he wants and sets out to get it. And if what he wants happens to be the world’s most famous architect, well … He tells George Hay what happened next.
What do you do if you’re a budding developer and you want to hire the world’s best architect? Ask Josh Arghiros. Passing up the time-honoured tactics of building up one’s reputation, forging contacts and employing a little good old-fashioned flattery, he went for a more extreme option. Kidnap.
Arghiros, a wiry, 41-year-old Greek Cypriot, had made a name for himself in his home town of Brighton by doing a number of medium-sized projects through his company Karis Developments. But when the city council said it wanted to turn the King Alfred Leisure Centre into a £200m mixed-use landmark, he jumped at the chance. And, not one to do things by halves, he also knew that there was only one man with the creative vision and sense of fun to put the great into King Alfred. That someone, as anyone who lives in Bilbao could tell you, was Frank Gehry.
There was one snag. Arghiros had never met Gehry, and didn’t think he knew anyone who had. So he rang up his architect mate Piers Gough, a Brighton man through and through. It was a productive call. Gough, it turned out, not only knew Gehry but was about to meet him during one of the Los Angeles-based architect’s fleeting appearances in Britain. Together, the two hatched a plan.
“Piers told me that Frank was coming over to work on a project he was doing in Dundee, the Maggie’s Centre cancer care facility,” says Arghiros. “So I said, when he gets his connecting flight at Heathrow back to the USA, divert him. Get him on an earlier flight from Dundee, and get him down to Brighton.”
Gough, as his friends will testify, is always up for a laugh. When Gehry turned up at the terminal on what he thought was his way back to LA, he was greeted by Gough, who introduced him to Arghiros. The developer then bundled him into his car, and set a course for the south coast.
Gehry, understandably, was taken aback.
“I think he actually thought I was taking the piss,” recalls Arghiros. “He thought he was going back home, to be honest. He kept on saying, ‘Where are you taking me?’ And I’d say, ‘Just on a little diversion’. All the time I was telling him what the project was all about.
But I basically drove him mad.”
Yet on seeing the site, Gehry chose not to have Arghiros arrested on aggravated kidnapping charges. The great man sized up the site, conferred with Gough a little more, and said he was in.
Frank’s a maverick who’s changed the face of architecture. He also swears a lot, which is good
“He actually went along with the whole thing,” says Arghiros. “I think he actually quite liked it. When he got down to Brighton, he saw the site, and saw the energy of our team and how absolutely up for it we were.”
That was three years ago. From these inspired beginnings, a huge team quickly grew. Gehry was joined by John Barrow of HOK Sport to design the sports centre, with Gough’s CZWG also involved. The Dutch finance house ING came in as the scheme’s major backer and guarantor, and names as famous as Antony Gormley and even Brad Pitt became associated with the project – which by now has received a quite astonishing level of international exposure given that essentially it is a leisure centre scheme on the British seaside. And at the centre of it all, cajoling, facilitating and driving things forward, was Arghiros.
Arghiros has a tough background. He left school at 15 and worked as a labourer before running his own plastering and then aggregate companies. You’d expect him to be in awe of Gehry’s genius, and he is. But the real reason the two get on may be what Arghiros described as the Canadian architect’s lack of “pseudo-intellectual bullshit”. Anyone who spent the early 1990s as a subbie with major contractors “ripping the shit out of you” is unlikely to have much time for flowery rhetoric. Fortunately, Gehry, who spent the first seven years of his adult life driving trucks, has an unpretentious persona that complements Arghiros’ energy.
“Frank is what I would call a humanist architect, because he imagines what you’re feeling when you’re standing in one of his buildings and then works his way out,” says Arghiros. “But he’s a maverick who’s changed the face of architecture, made it more fun and accessible. He also swears a lot, which is good.”
At the moment, Arghiros could be forgiven for letting off a few expletives. He is walking a tightrope. The finances of the project are delicately constructed to allow sufficient section 106 funds, and any delay could prove costly. The design has already been radically redrawn, with four towers of 40 storeys in half. Still, the planning application, due to go in next month, looks likely be accepted by the city councillors.
“We have 400 flats that have to pay for a £45m sports centre, 40% affordable housing, public realm designs by Antony Gormley, and a huge amount of infrastructure,” Arghiros says. “We’re just on the line of making it a success.”
But, as proved by his stunning carpe diem approach to securing an architect, Josh Arghiros is a man incapable of missing an opportunity. “We’re looking to find another project that captures our imagination,” Arghiros says. “We’re in the very enviable position that we have the credibility to talk to other cities because of what we’re doing.”
Soon, you imagine, Arghiros could be the one waiting at the airport only to be bundled into a convenient taxi …