Arts: A spiral into terminal decline

The Design Museum's `Modern Britain' exhibition looks back at the golden era of 20th-century architecture. So why are gems such as the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill falling into decay? Ask Chris Smith.
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The De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea might seem a perfect icon for Blairite Britain. Opened in 1936, it was the first truly modern public building in this country - and remains one of the finest. It was inspired by democratic, internationalist ideals, designed by architects who (like Hadid and Libeskind today) were denounced by conservatives as "aliens". It put Bexhill on the world map. It remains a place of pilgrimage for architects and students from many countries. To our shame, however, they find a building which is treated not as a national treasure (though it is Grade 1 listed) but as a local problem.

The decision of the Arts Lottery, just two months ago, to reject a bid for pounds 16.5m to complete the refurbishment of the building and instead to offer a mere pounds 120,000 to "rescope" the project was a devastating blow. The chief executive of Rother Council (which owns the pavilion and spends pounds 1m a year running it) told the Culture Secretary Chris Smith - who was, to his embarrassment, visiting the building on the day that the Lottery decision was announced - "the decision may have sounded the death knell for the project".

Mr Smith's response has not been made public, but it is the reform of the Lottery under New Labour - away from capital projects and into revenue funding - which has left the De La Warr stranded. While the pavilion's general manager, Caroline Collier, expresses confidence that the necessary funding will be found in the end, "if we behave ourselves", the immediate outlook is rather bleak. The 1,000-seat theatre, in particular, is in such a dire state that it may have to be closed on health and safety grounds. Ironically, at the very time that the De La Warr was turned down by the Lottery, pounds 15 million went to the Dome in nearby Brighton. It looks like a classic case of Lottery blight with money (the Arts Lottery provided pounds 500,000 in 1995 to develop the scheme), and waste of effort.

The pavilion is an extraordinary, unlikely object to find in a minor South Coast resort. Not everybody in the town loved it when it was new, but 60 years later there are residents alive who remember the opening. "The dear old Pav," wrote one of them. "I could fill pages with a list of all the interest, enjoyment and not a little romance that it gave me."

The pavilion was first envisaged as an entertainments hall when a competition for its design was launched in 1933 at the behest of the Earl De La Warr, a progressive whose election as Mayor of Bexhill owed something to his family's extensive land holdings in the town. The competition was won by Erich Mendelsohn, who had quit Nazi Germany (and a highly successful practice), and Serge Chermayeff - born in Chechnya but educated at Harrow and Cambridge and married to a girl he had met at a Sussex tennis party. Bexhill's Mayor envisaged - and got - a thoroughly modern building. Nobody in Bexhill had seen anything like this - except, perhaps, in the Thirties film Things to Come.

The building, on a prime site overlooking the Channel, was sleek, dynamic, looking a little like an ocean liner. It was constructed on a steel frame with a flat roof and long bands of windows. Inside were white walls, polished cork or terrazzo floors and furniture of bent wood and stainless steel. The curved staircase was spectacular, with a chrome-plated light 23 feet long hanging in the void. There was a restaurant, complete with a dance floor, a well-stocked reading room and a sun terrace. The flat roof could be used for deck games - the liner analogy again. There was scope for hedonism - and self-improvement. It was a glimpse of the future. "Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last," declared Bernard Shaw.

The ideals behind the pavilion inspired the new generation of architects who rebuilt Britain after the Second World War. The building itself, however, was damaged in the Blitz. Its steelwork (the architects had originally wanted reinforced concrete) proved vulnerable to the seaside climate. There were alterations, not always in good taste - flock wallpaper and fitted carpet crept in. Partitions and suspended ceilings obliterated sublime spaces. By the Eighties, the pavilion was decidedly dowdy and in need of major refurbishment. A local trust, with LibDem councillor Jill Theis as a prime mover, spurred the local authority into action. To its credit, Rother took up the challenge and English Heritage offered a grant for urgent external repairs. The architect John McAslan was appointed in 1991 to repair the fabric and subsequently to masterplan a major refurbishment - the scheme shelved by the Lottery.

McAslan's proposals envisage developing new amenities, including a spacious gallery, and updating those, like the theatre, which already exist. Office and storage space - virtually non-existent - will be provided in a sensitive extension, freeing up the historic interior. Performances by local star Eddie Izzard, tea dances, whist drives and exhibitions of surrealist photography can co-exist, Caroline Collier believes, to keep locals happy as well as attract a wider regional audience. Rother council has spent pounds 1.5m on repairs and improvements since 1990. Now, not unreasonably, it expects national backing for the Pav. It should receive it - and quickly.

`Modern Britain 1929-1939', sponsored by The Independent, is at the Design Museum, London SE1, from today (0171-378 6055)