Published  14/11/2005

De La Warr Pavilion

De La Warr Pavilion

Travelling from London to Bexhill-on-Sea on a late autumn day, when the sun got stronger as one reached the English Channel, and where the wind blew with such strength that it was almost impossible to stand up, was a marvellous way to arrive at the De La Warr Pavilion. Designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, and sponsored by the 9th Earl De La Warr during his time as Mayor of this seaside town, the pavilion was opened in December 1935 when it must have looked even more like something from outer space than it does today. Uncompromising in its use of concrete, steel and glass, and glistening white against the backdrop of Edwardian houses that line the seafront, it represented a deliberate attempt by the Earl and his supporters to inject new life into an area whose best times had been in the years before the First World War, but whose fortunes had diminished as a result of Britain's General Strike of 1926, the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the worldwide depression that followed.

In the 1930s, however, not everyone welcomed the new arrival on the seashore. Professor Charles Reilly, writing in the Manchester Guardian, was correct when he said:

It is safe to say that no such simple and elegant structure, none so novel in its straightforwardness and efficiency, has before been put up here as a pleasure pavilion. When one looks at the plain cream surfaces, divided by long vertical lines to define the inevitable graduations in colour, one wonders whether we are yet ready, and particularly whether Bexhill is yet ready, for such elegance.

In fact, the town was divided between those who had retired there for a quiet life (often ex-military and ex-colonial types) and those who recognised that something was needed to bring the town back to life and give young people something to do. Since the Second World War, little has changed. As the pavilion was owned by the local authority - and became increasingly expensive to maintain - it was seen as an albatross and there were calls for its demolition.

Indeed, by the end of the 1980s, the pavilion was in such a bad state of repair that balconies had begun to collapse. As a result, London-based architects, Troughton McAslan (now John McAslan & Partners), were called in to examine the various changes that had taken place in the building since the war. These included the re-siting of the bar, changes to the lecture and reading rooms, the division of spaces by innumerable screens and the installation of a lift. The architects were also asked to draw up a master plan. Today, the major stages in that plan have been completed and the public is pouring into a building that has been given a new lease of life.

The first thing that has to be said about the De La Warr Pavilion is that only part of the original scheme was ever built. Its rather strange, isolated appearance, including the blankness of its western (theatre) faÁade, is due to the fact that it was to be linked to a new, eight-storey hotel that was to have a curved glass faÁade facing the sea. This would have replaced a hotel owned by the De La Warr family that was burned down after the Second World War. Similarly, at the eastern end of the pavilion (that is, beyond the restaurant wing) there was to be a cinema that would have been linked by a pergola to a circular swimming pool and a pier leading into the sea.

These buildings demonstrated Mendelsohn's interest in urban planning (as shown by his scheme for Alexanderplatz, Berlin of 1931). They would also have created a wall between the Edwardian houses and the sea, and thus acted as a transition from the urban environment to the beach. There is an expressionist sketch showing the hotel, pavilion and cinema (c.1934) while an axonometric drawing of this scheme was published in The Architectural Review in 1936. Expressionist sketches are, of course, what Mendelsohn is famous for. But, as those for his Einstein Tower of 1920 prove, they are misleading because they disguise the fact that he always designed very precisely detailed and constructed buildings.

Mendelsohn & Chermayeff's entry for the competition for the design of the pavilion, which was organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to a very precise brief, came at a time when England was experiencing a sudden flowering of interest in the Modern Movement. The Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) had been founded in 1929 and was followed by the arrival of Gropius, Breuer and Moholy Nagy, all of whom lived in Lawn Road Flats, London, which had just been completed by Jack Pritchard to a design by Wells Coates. Indeed, among the 230 entries were ones from Adams, Thompson & Fry (Maxwell Fry's practice) and PG Freeman & W Crabtree. William Crabtree was to design the Peter Jones store in Knightsbridge, London (1934-39), itself a wonderful tribute to Mendelsohn's Schocken stores in Chemnitz (1926) and Breslau (1928).

However, Thomas Tait, the assessor, was under no doubt that Mendelsohn & Chermayeff's was the winning entry (though protests did lead to a public enquiry). Making use of the sloping site (from north to south), it suggested the half-buried structures and overlapping spaces developed by Mendelsohn for his own house, Am Ruperhorn, built in Berlin in 1930, while striking features such as the enclosed south staircase drew on that designed for the Metal Workers Union Building in Berlin of 1929. The dramatic lighting effects achieved at night repeated those achieved by the Schocken and Petersdorf stores (the latter built in Breslau in 1927).

In building the pavilion, however, there was a major innovation: for the first time in Britain, welded steel was used instead of reinforced concrete to an engineering design by Felix Samuely (another refugee from Europe), who had developed the technique in Germany. People watched as red-hot rivets were thrown from the ground to the welders working above. Thus, the frame went up extremely quickly and the rest of the building (done by local companies) was completed in under a year, to a budget that had risen from £50,000 to £70,000 (partly as the result of the demand for a fully equipped stage). The floors and walls were in concrete - the floors covered in terrazzo and cork, and the walls plastered white - while the windows were metal-framed and the terraces tiled. Roofs were in asphalt and that for the theatre covered by asbestos. This has now been replaced by profiled aluminium.

On the ground floor, the pavilion contained its theatre at the western end, which was fronted by a small foyer entered from the main hall that has enclosed staircases at either end. To the east of the hall was the restaurant with its kitchen and other offices along the north wall, and a dance floor and cloaks at the far end. All faced south on to a long, covered terrace. The first floor, in addition to the upper part of the theatre, contained a conference hall immediately above the main hall, and a library and reading room above the restaurant. At the end was a sun parlour. Above is an open terrace.

Altogether, the restoration and remodelling of the pavilion will cost £8 million and John McAslan & Partners have yet to insert a small bar and additional cloaks into the theatre's foyer, which is very small by today's standards. The main hall now contains a reception/office and a small shop, while the restaurant has become Gallery 1 containing 450 sq m that has an oak floor and steel-framed floor-to-ceiling windows replacing the wooden-framed windows installed in the 1960s. The gallery is fitted with wall washers and light fittings in the ceiling, and the windows have integral screens to control the huge amount of light coming in from the sea.

Upstairs, the conference hall has been converted into Gallery 2, a completely white space, while the library and reading rooms have become the café/bar and restaurant. The bar has cork flooring and a counter, whose poppy red and maple frontage brings a touch of strong colour (and recalls the colours of the building's original Aalto furniture). The restaurant, reached through a glass partition, has a grey cord carpet. Both have white wall and ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling windows looking towards the sea. There are also clerestory windows along the north wall. The first floor has a repositioned suite of cloaks distinguished by their ochre panelling.

Elsewhere in the building, the sand-coloured terrazzo used on the staircases and in the halls has been repaired or replaced. Similarly, original light fittings such as the globes over the rebuilt north staircase have been retained, as has the wonderful pendant fitting that hangs in the centre of the south staircase. Designed by Chermayeff, it is very similar to that designed by Moholy Nagy for Simpson's of Piccadilly, which was built from 1935-36.

Chermayeff, in fact, was largely responsible for the interior of the theatre, which seats just over 1,000 people and, in the late 1930s, gained a reputation for its acoustics. Though a new red cord carpet has been fitted to the foyer, the complete refurbishment of the theatre and its back stage facilities is not scheduled to be completed until 2008. A small suite of offices and a small studio theatre will then be inserted into the enclosed yard at the western end of the building. Also to come is new furniture for the café/bar and restaurant that will be designed by Barber & Osgerby, who are currently working for Isokon (the company originally set up by Pritchard). Isokon furniture, some designed by Ernest Race, is sold in the shop.

As has been said, Bexhill has always had an ambivalent attitude towards its pavilion, whose long-term future has been assured by the work of its Patrons and Friends. The building, now run by a Trust, has been separated from the local authority (now the Rother District Council), which remains the landlord. It would be a fitting gesture if it could give up the car park immediately to the north of the building (so cramping its style) and find another site nearby for the visitors' cars.

The pavilion's future is also being assured by a programme of exhibitions, talks, variety acts, performances, a Christmas pantomime and special events for children designed to appeal to people of all ages from the surrounding area and beyond. This, of course, was also the aim of Earl De La Warr when the building was first conceived. Added to this is the appeal of the beautifully restored building itself. Bilbao has benefited from Gehry's Guggenheim. Mendelsohn & Chermayeff's pavilion is just as good.

Richard Carr

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