Building with public good in mind might be a thing of the past but it is a past worthy of celebration and enjoyment. PETER FROST sings the praises of the De La Warr Pavilion.
The De La Warr Pavilion, Britain’s first modernist public building, still has the awesome power to shock and impress today. It dominates the seafront in the refined south coast resort of Bexhill for all the world like a recently landed Starship Enterprise.
Imagine then its effect in its first summer of 1936 — 80 years ago. In fact, the building had been completed in the dying days of 1935 but it was only when summer brought the annual influx of seaside visitors to Bexhill that the impact of the building hit public perception.
This was the summer of 1936, the stench of fascism was in the air from Berlin to Cable Street, from Mussolini in Abyssinia to Franco in Republican Spain.
The Pavilion was designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. The former was a German Jew who had fled the anti-semitism of Hitler’s rise to power. With the latter, also Jewish but of Russian origin, they formed a partnership that would result in some spectacular buildings, but none more outstanding than the Bexhill masterpiece.
It was not just one of the earliest examples of the Art Deco and international modernist style in Britain — it was also one of the very best in the world.
Among the building’s most innovative features was its use of a welded steel frame construction, pioneered by the structural engineer Felix Samuely.
So who was the man behind this bold architectural and cultural experiment? It was commissioned by Herbrand Sackville, the ninth Earl De La Warr, who became Bexhill’s first socialist mayor in 1932.
De La Warr, although of a long and traditional aristocratic background of the landed gentry, was the first ever hereditary peer to join the Labour Party. He was socialist Mayor of Bexhill and in that role he persuaded Bexhill council to develop the site with a public cultural building.
The competition was announced in February 1934 with a programme that specified an entertainment hall to seat at least 1,500 people, a 200-seat restaurant, a reading room and a lounge. It attracted over 230 entrants, many of whom were adherents of modernism.
De La Warr’s socialist principles saw him demand that the Pavilion should not a private venture but be publicly funded: “My own view is that if it is going to pay private enterprise it is going to pay the town.’”
His specification was clear: “It is the intention of the promoters that the building should be simple in design and suitable for a holiday resort in the south of England. Character in design can be obtained by the use of large window spaces, terraces and canopies.
“No restriction as to style of architecture will be imposed but buildings must be simple, light in appearance and attractive, suitable for a holiday resort. Heavy stonework is not desirable […] Modern steel framed or ferro-cement construction may be adopted.”
Sadly, De La Warr’s progressive socialist principles did not last as long as his pavilion. He was one of the few Labour politicians to join Ramsay MacDonald in the formation of the national government and he ended his political career as postmaster general under Conservative Winston Churchill.
At least he kept up his interest in the arts and culture, playing a key part in the founding of the Arts Council and proposing a great post-war Thameside festival that eventually became the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Why a pavilion? Before the new building was constructed, Bexhill’s main entertainment venue was the Kursaal. Built by his father the eighth Earl De La Warr in 1896 it was originally intended to be a pier, but was never extended out to sea.
During the first world war patriotic pressure changed its name from the German-sounding Kursaal to the more British-sounding pavilion.
Comedian Spike Milligan was posted in the pavilion when it became part of Britain’s coastal defences in the war.
He had no time for the building. This is how he referred to it in Adolf Hitler — My Part in his Downfall: “De La Warr Pavilion, a fine modern building with absolutely no architectural merit at all. It was opened just in time to be bombed. The plane that dropped it was said to have been chartered by the Royal Institute of British Architects with Hugh Casson at the controls and John Betjeman at the bombsight…”
Ignore Spike, today the Pavilion, immaculately restored, is an arts centre, gallery and cultural centre. The building is just as awe-inspiring and amazing as it was in that summer 80 years ago.
It is well worth a day at the seaside to see it.
First published in the Morning Star 5 August 2016.