De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill Creative commons image Credit: iknow-uk under CC-BY-NC-ND licence

Architect:
Erich Mendelsohn, (Germany)
Serge Chermayeff, (Russia)

 

Construction Date:
1935

Location:
Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

Modern Architecture for the Working Man

Many Modernist buildings in Britain in the 1930s were, like the Lawn Road Flats, principally homes for wealthy individuals. The De La Warr Pavilion was conceived as a means of introducing modernist architecture to wider society. Set in the seaside resort of Bexhill, it was one of the most talked about buildings in Britain when it was opened in December 1935, both for its striking appearance and for the modern construction methods which were used to build it.

The building was commissioned by Earl De La Warr, the aristocratic mayor of Bexhill and chairman of the National Labour Party. At its opening, he described the building as "part of a great national movement, virtually to found a new industry- the industry of giving that relaxation, that pleasure, that culture which hitherto the gloom and dreariness of British resorts have driven our fellow countrymen to seek in foreign lands."

Emergence from Barbarism

The Pavilion is unique for a number of reasons. It is the first major welded steel-frame building in Britain (both its architect Erich Mendelsohn and Mies Van Der Rohe had used this technique in Germany); the competition to design it was the first for a public building in which a specifically modern solution was suggested in the brief; and it is one of the few British buildings of Erich Mendelsohn, a Modernist architect who was already one of the most celebrated in Europe when he arrived in Bexhill.

There were 230 entries, with Erich Mendelsohn (who had arrived from Nazi Germany only three months previously), and Serge Chermayeff (a Russian interior designer and former ballroom dancer) emerging triumphant. Chermayeff was virtually unknown, but Mendelsohn was considered one of Germany's finest architects.

Reaction to the winning design was positive. Professor Charles Reilly wrote in the Architects' Journal; "The straight-forward spaciousness of the interiors and the great spiral stairs gracefully mounting in their glass cylinders are things we have all dreamed about but none of us have done on their scale or with their sureness of touch. Thank goodness we still open our gates a little now and then to foreigners and make them members of our community. It is the way architecture has progressed ever since we had any."

And George Bernard Shaw commented; "Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least."

Alien Architects

But not everyone was taken by the new addition to the seafront. The respected Architects' Journal was bombarded with letters attacking the design of these "aliens", and the leader in Fascist Week fulminated against the public employment of "foreign Jews".

The Pavilion was sited on a prime site overlooking the Channel. Inside the walls were white, the floors were polished cork or terrazzo, and the furniture was stainless steel or bent wood. A twenty-three feet high steel, helix-like staircase seems to float in the middle of the building. Originally, there was a restaurant and dance-floor, a reading room, and a sun terrace, whose flat roof was used for deck games.

Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's original design included a much more ambitious colonnade stretching to the west, but budgetary constraints forced this to be scrapped.

The Pavilion was only used in its intended state for three years. Damaged during the War, its steelwork proved vulnerable to the seaside climate in later years. Austerity meant that renovations were inadequate and piecemeal, often with little or no regard for the original spirit of the design. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair, but has since been renovated with the help of the Pavilion Trust.