Co Durham's Corbusier seeks to heal rift over troubled bridge

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The Independent Online
On the eve of his 88th birthday, the artist and sculptor Victor Pasmore has broken his silence over the fate of a concrete folly proclaimed by English Heritage as "an internationally important masterpiece", but derided by local people as "a slimy old bridge" that should be demolished.

The Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham, was conceived by Pasmore, a leading figure of the post-war British avant garde, as "an architecture and sculpture of purely abstract form through which to walk, in which to linger and on which to play".

Built in 1963, it was the artist's post-modernist contribution to Peterlee, Durham's only new town where, eight years earlier, Pasmore had been appointed consulting director of urban design.

The "Corbusier of County Durham", then Master of Painting at Durham University, wanted to bring some cheer to the lives of the miners relocating from grimy pit villages. But to residents of the Sunny Blunts housing estate, which Pasmore also helped to plan and design, the pavilion and the polluted pond it spans have brought only hostility and misery as a target for vandalism and a meeting place for glue-sniffers and teenage courting couples.

Easington District Council feels the same way. It is objecting to English Heritage's decision to recommend to Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, that the sculpture should be listed Grade II*, taking the view that the pavilion has no architectural or historical merit to warrant preservation. It has asked the Government's Conservation Agency to abandon its plans to list the sculpture and assist instead in its demolition.

Joan Maslin, a district councillor who represents Sunny Blunts, is the pavilion's fiercest critic, having campaigned for 14 years for its removal. It is her fight to have his pavilion demolished which has prompted Pasmore to defend his work for the first time since 1982 when, on a visit to Peterlee, he said the vandalism had humanised his work, demonstrating its acceptance by the community.

In a letter to Mrs Maslin, written from his retirement home in Malta and prompted by an article in The Independent in September, Pasmore explains that the pavilion, together with the lake, were designed to form a "non- utilitarian" centre for the Sunny Blunts housing estate.

"One of the main problems of urban design," he writes, "seemed to me that there is no emotional centre like that provided by the church in the past by its cathedrals. When [it was] decided to turn the stream running through Sunny Blunts into a lake I thought if its existence was emphasised by a large sculpture it might function as a purely visual centre. This led to the idea of a pavilion . . .

"At that time the maintenance of the building was undertaken by the corporation itself so that it served as a kind of centre very well. But the trouble started when children and hooligans began to scribble over the interior walls upstairs with words and images, some of which were obscene. Naturally, this infuriated the residents living around and of course the local council ... I apologise for my design being distasteful to you: but I had to do something modern. To have put up an imitation Greek temple, a Gothic church or a Georgian mansion would have produced equally strong objections from a different source. I hope, therefore, you will have another look at the pavilion!"

Although flattered to have received Pasmore's letter, Mrs Maslin remains unmoved. "The reason why the sculpture was put here in the first place doesn't mean anything to the people - most of whom are pensioners - who live here. It is all very well these famous artists and architects designing things and getting a fat fee, but it's ordinary people who have to live with the consequences of the desolation they create.

"All people here think of the pavilion is that it is a heap of dirty, slimy concrete covered in graffiti which youths climb up to have sex on, and from which to urinate on passers-by. It should be destroyed and forgotten about, not preserved."

Blain Harwood, an English Heritage historian, could not be contacted yesterday, but recently insisted that the sculpture was a national treasure which needed to be restored and properly managed and maintained. "It's an absolutely unique work of considerable international importance," she said. "It was an extraordinary thing to put up in the heart of a new town. There isn't another piece of public sculpture like it anywhere in the country."