De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

  • Marina, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, TN40 1DP
  • Designed by: Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff
  • Built: 1935
  • Tags: Modernist, Pavilion, Seaside

The Victorian era saw a rapid growth of seaside resorts around the coast of Britain, fuelled by a number of factors. In Britain, working conditions for workers were improving, driven by worker's unions and increased acceptance of workers rights. The 1871 Bank Holidays Act granted workers four days when banks and offices were closed, the first guaranteed holidays for workers across Britain; while in 1909 Trade Boards Act created four trade boards that could determine minimum wages in certain industries, giving more workers higher wages. The expansion of the railways pushed out from the major cities to reach smaller seaside towns.

Together, increasing household incomes and improved transport links to the seaside allowed tens of thousands of working-class Britons to take day trips to the seaside. Entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of these waves of visitors developed a unique brand of British seaside entertainment from Punch and Judy shows to donkey rides; from candy-floss, to ice-cream and sticks of rock.

Increasing rivalry between neighbouring resorts saw seaside towns commission architects and planners to design and build the very best amenities: piers, lidos, hotels, pleasure gardens and pavilions, all designed to tempt the holiday-goers.  By the end of the 1930s some 15 million Britons annually were taking a holiday at the seaside.

Bexhill-on-Sea was no exception. As its population expanded and its popularity as a seaside resort grew the mayor, the 9th Earl De La Warr, formulated an idea for a centre for arts and entertainment for the town. In 1933, an international competition allowing a budget of £80,000 for the construction of a new sea-front building commenced, and over two hundred entries were received. The winning design chosen was by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff.  Their design was for a radical building, the likes of which had not been side outside Continental Europe.

Across the English Channel, during the inter-war years, the International Style marked a radical departure where previously architects often took inspiration from earlier architectural styles, such as Classical and Gothic architecture. The International Style was one of a number of schools of Modernist architecture at the time, and the purest in its ambitions.  It rejected the excessive decoration and ornamentation of previous movements, instead adopting the idea that 'form follows function', that design is determined by purpose. Buildings in this style are characterised by straight lines and geometrical forms, with the use of metalwork, the extensive use of glass and cantilevered structural elements.

Today, we might not realise just how radical and controversial Modernist buildings were. Everything about the design - the concrete-construction, the flat roof, the large glazed areas, the white-painted exteriors - were "alien" to Britain. Since Modernist architecture was "imported" to Britain from Europe there was a mistrust, almost a xenophobia (Modernist architecture flourished in Germany), towards this style of architecture amongst traditionalists. There were also practical concerns; the flat roofs and large glazed areas were considered unsuitable for the wetter, colder British climate.

Not only were the origins of the design of the Pavilion viewed with suspicion within certain quarters.  The nationalities of the winning architects provoked an outcry amongst some, despite the fact that Mendelsohn (who was Jewish) had to leave Germany following the rise of anti-semitism. Russian Serge Chermayeff was born in Grozny (now in Chechnya) and had been educated in Britain.

Mendelsohn's and Chermayeff's design was significant as it was the first welded, steel-framed structure in Britain, constructed by the engineering firm of Helsby, Hamann and Samuely. Astonishingly for such a new building technique and for such a large building, construction took less than a year.

The Pavilion is made up of two main sections either side of a central entrance, with a north and south stairwell. The three-storey west-wing houses a large auditorium space with large glass windows at ground-floor level. The two storey east-wing is fully glazed on its south elevation and has cantilevered balconies linking to the south staircase which projects out from the south elevation, providing the Pavilion with its most recognisable feature. The north elevation has a cantilevered stairwell above the main entrance with a first-floor level canopy extending the length of the western section. Large illuminated, spaced letters spell out the words 'DE LA WARR PAVILION' atop the canopy.

Construction of the Pavilion began in January 1935 and the building was official opened on 12th December 1935. The opening ceremony was performed by The Duke and Duchess of York; the Duke of York later became King George VI. The Pavilion was described as a "people's palace by the sea" for the population of Bexhill-on-Sea.

The De La Warr Pavilion, named after the mayor who was so instrumental in its creation, was described by The Times newspaper as "by far the most civilised thing that has been done on the South Coast since the days of the Regency".

The use of the Pavilion was curtailed during the Second World War as the building was requisitioned for civilian and military administration. The location of the town of Bexhill-on-Sea on the south coast put her in a perilous position and it is believed the Pavilion provided the Luftwaffe with an aid to navigation (it is after all a large, white building on the south coast of Britain). In 1940 the Pavilion suffered bomb damage from a raid which obliterated the neighbouring Metropole Hotel.

After the war, the Pavilion was a success again attracting 28,000 visitors a year. As tastes changed, the Pavilion was altered to try to maintain visitor levels. Post-war aspirations for leisure and entertainment were markedly different; consequential changes to the Pavilion were not in the style of the original design, but necessary to ensure the Pavilion remained viable.

Gradually, as more and more Britons took overseas holidays, resorts like Bexhill-on-Sea suffered a slow decline. Fortunately the Pavilion was first given listed-building status on 28 January 1971 and was later upgraded to Grade I listed-status in 1986.

However, local residents fearing for the future of the Pavilion formed a local committee in 1989.  This later became the De La Warr Pavilion Charitable Trust, which has actively driven forward plans for the preservation of the Pavilion and its retention as an arts venue. The Trust has helped protect and conserve the Pavilion's surviving original features.

In 1998 the situation looked hopeful, with a bid for Arts Council Lottery funding to help secure the future of the building. For whatever reason the bid failed and the local authority, Rother District Council, sought to recoup its funding for the Pavilion by leasing the building to private business. A potential suitor for the Council was the J D Weatherspoon pub chain.

This shocking potential development for the Pavilion galvanised the community alongside local and national bodies and a renewed bid in 2000 for lottery funding secured a total of £6 million for the restoration of the Pavilion. The Pavilion closed in 2003 and reopened in October 2005, after a total £9 million spend.

Today the Pavilion serves two guises, an international-significant example of Modernist architecture and a centre for contemporary arts. The Pavilion is open all year round, with an extensive programme of live events and exhibitions.  Entrance to the building and exhibitions is free, while events require booking.  The Pavilion is well worth a visit, and can be hired for weddings and civil partnerships, and corporate events.

Posted on Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A celebration of Modernist architecture in Britain