“A modernist building of world renown that will become a crucible for creating a new model of cultural provision in an English seaside town which is going to lead to the growth, prosperity and the greater culture of our town” Thus said the 9th Earl De La Warr in May 1935, as he laid the plaque which currently forms part of the floor of the Pavilion foyer. The Pavilion opened to the public for the first time on the 12th December of that year, to critical and popular acclaim and controversy. Seventy years on, the response to the building’s re-opening as a centre for contemporary arts in October 2005, received much the same reception. During the 1920‘s Bexhill on Sea was in a residential boom, with a growing population of people moving in for thepeace, quiet, natural beauty and the health-giving qualities of living by the sea . But by the early 1930‘s, Bexhill saw a need to embark on a development that would attract more visitors to the town and expand as a resort.
By 1932, the town council had elected a young mayor, the 9th Earl De La Warr who was quick-witted and wealthy and whose family had built the greater part of Victorian Bexhill. Already influenced by European ideas, the Earl was aware of emerging trends in design and architecture outside the UK. He persuaded Bexhill Town Council to launch an international competition for the design of a seaside Pavilion which was to provide culture and entertainment for the masses – a people‘s palace – with a specific brief that lent itself to the new “international” style, the common name given to the new style of architecture named Modernism.
By the 1930‘s, Modernism, which had started as an expression of national culture and the fusion of mechanical practice with artistic ideals, had adopted a politically informed position. The Pavilion design is an expression of a specifically social and moral agenda, now incorporated into an aesthetic philosophy. The winning design of the De La Warr Pavilion was by two architects, one a refugee from Hitler‘s Germany and the other a Russian, both practising in England. Erich Mendelsohn was already known as one of the great architects of his day, having built its considerable reputation with public and private buildings in Germany. Signature buildings included the Schocken Department store in Chemnitz in 1928 and the Einstein Building in Potsdam (1921).
Serge Chermayeff had lived in England since he was a young boy and had an established design practice responsible for the interior of the BBC‘s new Broadcasting House and the Cambridge Theatre. Their partnership lasted three years with the De La Warr Pavilion being their most famous achievement. Building work started on the site of the old coastguard cottages on the sea-front in March 1935. The mode of construction, the materials and techniques used were pioneering in their own right.
The Pavilion was constructed out of concrete and steel, with large glass windows, cantilevered balconies, clean lines and terrazzo floors. The interior design was just as cutting edge , with light cream and pastel walls, moulded plywood chairs designed by Alvar Aalto and a mural by artist Edward Wadsworth commissioned for the restaurant.
The Pavilion finally opened on December 12 1935 by the Duke and Duchess of York after a nine-month, £80,000 project which provoked curiosity and controversy throughout the UK. For a short while, the Pavilion provided the entertainment and culture it was built for. Concerts and events were held in the 1,000 seat auditorium, exhibitions and talks in the lecture hall, good food and music in the café and deck-games on the roof.
When war was declared in 1939, the building, along with other public entertainment venues in the UK, was temporarily closed and forced to black-out. And this was the story in the decades up to the end of the century. The Pavilion strived to be fit for purpose, changing its interior décor and programme to fit the trends of the times in terms of cultural demand and audience volume and expectations.
In 1985, with the formation of English Heritage and the growing enthusiasm for the architecture of the 1930‘s, moves were made to have the Pavilion upgraded in 1986 to the highest Grade One category. In 1990 London architectural practice Troughton McAlsan was appointed to provide a long-term restoration and usage plan for the Pavilion – as well as initiating an education programme about the building for schools and local residents. By the early 1990‘s a plan had been drawn up which centred on the Pavilion‘s arts programme and the development of new audiences, as well as its restoration and redevelopment. The De La Warr Pavilion Trust launched several campaigns to restore some of the more visible aspects of the Pavilion – the famous light-fitting, the remaining original furniture and the aluminium floor-plaque. The council considered the building‘s long-term, sustainable use and considered transferring its management to an independent charitable Trust.
By the late 1990‘s major research had identified a gap in the cultural offer in the South East. The interest in contemporary visual arts (reflected in the emergence of Brit Art, the popularity of Tate Modern, plans for the Baltic in Gateshead) was seen as being a real driver in delivering a new audience for the Pavilion, with a programme of arts and architecture unique to the region and appropriate to the building. In 1998, a bid was proposed to the Arts Council Lottery Fund to transform the building into a centre for arts and architecture. The bid failed and, in response, Rother District Council, now funding the Pavilion to the tune of £1m a year, opted for the Pavilion to be put out to tender to the private sector. The possibility of the Pavilion being owned by the pub chain J.D. Weatherspoon, rallied the building‘s local, national and international supporters, initiating a campaign, reported in the national press, to save the Pavilion from becoming a public house.
By 2000, the new director of the Pavilion, Alan Haydon, had successfully led a new bid to the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery and secured £6m for the restoration and redevelopment of the Pavilion into a centre for art, architecture and live performance. A new charity – the De La Warr Pavilion Charitable Trust – was set up and ownership and management of the Pavilion and its artistic programme was transferred to the Trust from the Council.
The Pavilion closed in 2003 for the works to take place and re-opened in October 2005 as a centre for contemporary arts. Since re-opening, it attracts over 350,000 visitors a year and commissions and presents a host of international visual, performing and music artists.