De La Warr

July 1, 2007

Simon Faithful’s 747 proposalBlueprint Magazine
Issue 256 / July 2007

In the Thirties the De La Warr Pavilion was conceived with a bold belief in modern socialism. Ruth Hedges outlines a new exhibition of imaginary proposals for its 21st-century use

The De La Warr Pavilion was always driven by visionary ideas. Bexhill-on- Sea’s young mayor was chairman of the new National Labour Party, and known as ‘Buck’ De La Warr. Facing out towards Europe, he threw open the possibilities of a seaside pavilion with a taste for the modern and belief in socialism – culture for all.

The year was 1933. Hitler had just assumed control of the German parliament, and Buck sought new ideas to stand firm for a better way of living. The competition to design the pavilion attracted 230 entries. Sketches and models flooded in, and the conservative Edwardian town became a place where architects’ imagination could twist and turn in dreams of reinforced concrete.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the restored clean, white lines of émigré Mendelsohn’s winning design belie the flurry of sketches of early thoughts. The modernist building is now part of our architectural heritage, standing solid against the elements. However, it is the initial energy and scope for possibility that the curator of the De La Warr Pavilion, Celia Davies, hopes to capture in her latest exhibition, It Starts From Here.

‘The original brief for the building was for a modern solution,’ she says. ‘At a show we did last year of Mendelsohn’s sketches, I was taken with how impressive and expressive they were, and it made me think of the importance of ideas – that they don’t always have to be realised.’

A plan was hatched, and a brief swiftly followed: if you could do anything as a temporary intervention to the building, what would it be? Artists and designers were selected, linked by their sideways-thinking approach to work, and loose architectural referencing, to come up with proposals for a De La Warr Pavilion of the 21st century.

Ideas range from a wind turbine powering the pavilion, with a candy- coloured striped viewing tent on the roof, echoing the town’s Edwardian peaks (Christina Mackie), to using the shape of a Mendelsohn sketch as the basis for a massive screen behind the pavilion, with the effect of flattening the building back into a two-dimensional form, ‘removing Bexhill from the original image’ (John Frankland). In one idea the town is integrated, in the other it is obliterated.

Simon Faithful’s proposals reveal his own personal ambivalence towards the modernist dream and its contextual reality. In one image we see a 747 coming to land on the flat roof. The triumph over gravity hangs majestically in the blue sky, and the horizontal sweep of its wings creates an elegant tension with the vertical lines of the roof. There is something of the hovering space landing about it. Indeed, Faithful says: ‘I’ve often been attracted to the sadness of modernist buildings when they are set in English context. Somehow, buildings such as the De La Warr Pavilion embody this heroic belief in a future that didn’t quite happen. They end up looking like beached spacecraft that travelled from far lands with news of better ways of living, only to be ignored by the terraces of bad plumbing that surround them.’

Nils Norman, another of the commissioned artists, grew up in the terraces of the badly plumbed. He used to hang out in the then rundown pavilion, and says: ‘It was always a bit empty and neglected… we were left free to hang out on the stairs and landings. The building and the beach for me represented a sort of unregulated public space.’

This idea of unregulated public space has influenced Norman’s work, and his proposal is inspired by Edward Wadsworth’s original mural for the building, a framed drawing of which used to hang in the lobby when Norman was growing up.

An inherent tension between modernism’s expectation and realisation comes through in many of the proposals. Alex Hartley sees the shape of the building and role of the car park, as a precursor to shopping malls in America. He proposes to ‘use a printed PVC building wrap [used in the construction industry during renovation and demolition], suspended on minimal scaffold, to cover the building and to turn it into a commercial strip mall’.

All the plans will be shown alongside sketches for other landmark creations – the telephone kiosk (1924), the Mini (1956) and Pluto the Dog (1936). Gallery 2 will also be converted into the Vision Bank, where visitors can create their own plans.

Celia Davies says that she wants the exhibition to work as a laboratory, and hopes that ‘it will galvanise a new commissioning strategy’.


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