Residential development along the north side of Marine Parade, a wide road leading eastwards along Brighton seafront, across the top of East Cliff, began in about 1790 (nearest the old fishing village of Brighthelmston—the ancient heart of the city). The houses were large, well-appointed and benefited from superb direct sea views, so the area immediately became one of the highest-class areas of the growing town. In the 21st century it has been described as "the country's most impressive marine façade" Most of the area is protected by one of the 34 conservation areas in the city, and features one of its best and most consistent sets of Regency architecture.
For many years one plot of land towards the western end of Marine Parade was marred by a derelict petrol station "The Aquarium Garage". In the late 1990s, housebuilder Berkeley Group Holdings, under its Berkeley Homes (Southern) brand, bought the brownfield site and sought to redevelop it with a high-density residential development. Its proposal was an apartment block with two- and three-bedroom flats, all with balconies and sea views and served by an underground car park. Because the prominent site was so visually sensitive—on a main road into and out of Brighton and surrounded by high-quality, architecturally harmonious stuccoed buildings of moderate height—the company and their chosen architect, Peter Rutter, from the London-based firm PRC Fewster Architects had to present their plans to several parties. Brighton and Hove Borough (later City) Council and two national government bodies, English Heritage and the Royal Fine Arts Commission (later to be known as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), were involved.
The agreed design was for 37 sea-facing apartments including five penthouses and accommodation for a concierge, which became Flat 38. The council required provision to be made for affordable housing as part of the development, so two new terraced houses were built at the rear of the block on Camelford St. Work began in 1999, and the building was completed in 2001.
The 38 flats went on sale in late May 2000, and within hours most had been sold; by 3 June 2000, it was reported that only eight were still available—despite an 18-month wait for completion, prices of up to £500,000 and only an artist's drawing to refer to.
The Van Alen Building consists of three linked blocks of equal width, of which the westernmost is recessed significantly from Marine Parade. The centre bay is set further forwards but still recessed, and the easternmost (corner of Camelford St) bay fronts the road. Curved lines and surfaces are used throughout; the building thereby represents a 21st-century interpretation of the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles which were popular themes in seaside resort architecture in the 1930s. In Brighton, this tradition was represented by the Embassy Court development of 1934–36 by Modernist architect Wells Coates—one of the city's most innovative and iconic modern buildings—and the Van Alen Building has been compared to it. The overall design has been praised as innovative by Brighton & Hove City Council and within the building industry. Local conservationists have also given their approval.
The "white"-painted façade has some nautical-themed windows in the style of portholes, long horizontal glazed areas facing the sea, and balconies with a glass balustrade. These were installed instead of the intended opaque balconies at the request of the heritage bodies consulted and are connected by Modernist-style "fins".