Architecture: Reinventing Bexhill-on-Sea

Win a prize, design a bandstand. Niall McLaughlin did. By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
ERICH MENDELSOHN designed the glamorous de la Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, Surrey in 1939 so that it would have a small bandstand on its seaward side. The colonnaded bandstand on the eastern side would complete the sweeping levels and concrete curves of Britain's first example of Early Modernism. The bandstand was never built, but that didn't stop bathing belles with goose pimples and beach balls prancing about on the terraces at weekends, to the delight of the Sunday Mirror photographer who recorded their antics.

Now the Friends of the de la Warr Trust have stumped up pounds 30,000 for a bandstand. It doesn't envisage brass bands playing on it, or beach ball troupes. It just wants to create a bit more space in the seaside town, a centre that doubles for the performing arts. It even wants the bandstand to be movable, like a piece of stage gear. It ran a competition with the Royal Institute of British Architects to find an architect who would be appropriate, 70 years on, to pay homage to Britain's first Modernist, yet bring to it a suitably Nineties spin.

Niall McLaughlin won. He is passionately enthusiastic about Mendelsohn's extraordinarily heroic building. "Mendelsohn wrote very movingly about architecture that encompassed what he called `the flood of recognition'," he says. "That is what makes his building so popular with inhabitants, not the shock of the new. It's true that this big, white albatross of a building set amid the Thirties-style semis has always been tremendously popular. But now that both town and architecture have moved on, Bexhill- on-Sea needs something up-to-date, with that star quality."

What drew the judges' attention was that McLaughlin saw a need for the bandstand to have "a certain rhythm in its composition". Rather than draw up plans for a pack-flat bandstand, he sensibly decided to solve the "de- mountable" issue by looking to extend the structure rather than move it to suit any eventuality.

He convinced the judges of the need to involve local schoolchildren in the design, which he learnt from working with schoolchildren to design a bandstand in Dublin six months ago. "Kids begin with an object. Then, as they explore that space, they see light, and trees and neighbouring homes. The bandstand becomes a set of relationships, not a designer statement in isolation."

He also showed the judges slides of some of his previous projects. There is the wall of umbrellas he built with Phil Tabor and students at the Bartlett where he teaches. And an installation with the artist Martin Richardson involving covering the Riba floor with soap powder, then coloured with cones of blue light. "Not all of them liked it," he admits. "But at least they began exploring the space, and that's what architecture is all about."

There is a curiously seductive quality about McLaughlin's buildings. They have the "wish-you-were-there" factor, what Mendelsohn calls that "flood of recognition".

There is the Shack, in Northampton, built for a photographer and inspired by the Stealth bombers that used to land at the old airfield there. The outline of that awesome war machine can be seen in the imprint of the building, which he gracefully cantilevered out over water in a thrusting wing.

Then there is the Carmelite Priory in Kensington, London. "Angels' wings from Lippi's Annunciation at the National Gallery became a swooping pinion turned sideways, put into the roof to direct light into the sacristy. If you need to know it's an angel's wing, then it hasn't worked."

This contemplative space uses other Renaissance tricks, such as the use of a loggia as a threshold between interior and exterior, whereas the house he designed as home in Knightsbridge uses overhead roof light - "like fish spiralling up to the light, to make people move through the building. The top floor is flooded with it." He had no trouble getting planning permission, which is why he is painlessly fitting a radical new piece of geometry, featuring wraparound corner windows, into a country house extension.