Est. 1935. Modern Ever Since
Est. 1935. Modern Ever Since
‘A modernist building of world renown that will become a crucible for creating a new model of cultural provision in an English seaside town which is going to lead to the growth, prosperity and the greater culture of our town’
Thus said the 9th Earl De La Warr in May 1935, as he laid the plaque which forms part of the floor of the De La Warr Pavilion’s foyer.
Originally conceived as a ‘People’s Palace’, this experiment in democratic social enterprise is the prototype for the modern cultural centre and the blueprint for the Southbank. The Earl’s innovative socialist thinking went on to inspire The Festival of Britain and the Arts Council.
The Pavilion opened to the public for the first time on the 12th December 1935, to critical and popular acclaim and controversy.
Seventy years on, the response to the building’s re-opening as a centre for contemporary arts in October 2005, received much the same reception.
In its 80th year, the Pavilion received over 400,000 visitors a year with an impact of over £16m to the local economy. By 2018, visitors had increased to 420,000.
We are working towards a future where the Pavilion will re-instate its importance as a world class heritage site for the modernist movement, allowing more people greater access to cultural experiences and ensure that culture-led regeneration for the region has sustained momentum into the next decade and beyond.
Join a building tour to find out more about the fascinating history of the Pavilion.
Buy Alastair Fairley’s The Modernist Masterpiece which gives you a fascinating and detailed history of the building up until 2005.
Visit Bexhill Museum to see the original model of the Pavilion that was created for the architectural competition.
During the 1920‘s Bexhill on Sea was in a residential boom, with a growing population of people moving in for the peace, quiet, natural beauty and the health-giving qualities of living by the sea . But by the early 1930‘s, Bexhill saw a need to embark on a development that would attract more visitors to the town and expand as a resort . By 1932, the town council had elected a young mayor, the 9th Earl De La Warr (“Buck”) who was young, quick-witted and wealthy, and whose family had built the greater part of Victorian Bexhill.
“Buck” was already a junior minister for agriculture and a leading force in the new National Labour Party, of which he was Chairman. Already influenced by European ideas, the Earl was aware of emerging trends in design and architecture outside the UK. He persuaded Bexhill Town Council to launch an international competition for the design of a seaside Pavilion which was to provide culture and entertainment for the masses – a people‘s palace – with a specific brief that lent itself to the new “international” style, the common name given to the new style of architecture named Modernism.
By the 1930‘s, Modernism, which had started as an expression of national culture and the fusion of mechanical practice with artistic ideals, had adopted a politically informed position. The Pavilion design is an expression of a specifically social and moral agenda, now incorporated into an aesthetic philosophy. The winning design of the De La Warr Pavilion was by two architects, one a refugee from Hitler‘s Germany and the other a Russian, both practising in England. Erich Mendelsohn was already known as one of the great architects of his day, having built his considerable reputation with public and private buildings in Germany. Signature buildings included the Schocken Department store in Chemnitz in 1928 and the Einstein Building in Potsdam (1921).
Serge Chermayeff had lived in England since he was a young boy and had an established design practice responsible for the interior of the BBC‘s new Broadcasting House and the Cambridge Theatre. Their partnership lasted three years with the De La Warr Pavilion being their most famous achievement. Building work started on the site of the old coastguard cottages on the sea-front in March 1935. The mode of construction, the materials and techniques used were pioneering in their own right.
The Pavilion was constructed out of concrete and steel, with large glass windows, cantilevered balconies, clean lines and terrazzo floors. The interior design was just as cutting edge , with light cream and pastel walls, moulded plywood chairs designed by Alvar Aalto and a mural by artist Edward Wadsworth commissioned for the restaurant. The original model, currently exhibited at Bexhill Museum, included a swimming pool with a pier jutting out to sea and covered walkways from promenade to Pavilion.
The Pavilion finally opened on the 12th December 1935 by the Duke and Duchess of York after a nine-month, £80,000 project which provoked curiosity and controversy throughout the UK. For a short while, the Pavilion provided the entertainment and culture it was built for. Concerts and events were held in the 1,000 seat auditorium, exhibitions and talks in the lecture hall, good food and music in the café and deck-games on the roof.
When war was declared in 1939, the building, along with other public entertainment venues in the UK, was temporarily closed and forced to black-out. The Pavilion‘s first floor was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence to house the operating arm of its southern command. The Pavilion was a highly visible landmark along the south coast and in September 1940 suffered bomb damage to its West Wall which, in turn, demolished the adjacent Hotel Metropole. By the end of the war, the Pavilion was patched up and ready to host a new programme of entertainment which, it was recognised, had to change with the times.
And this was the story in the decades up to the end of the century. The Pavilion strived to be fit for purpose, changing its interior décor and programme to fit the trends of the times in terms of cultural demand and audience volume and expectations.
The building itself, due to paucity of public funds, fell into a state of neglect and disrepair, The lack of any strategic maintenance plan for the building and scarcity of finances to fund those plans led to a radical re-think of its future by the (now Rother District) council.
In 1985, with the formation of English Heritage and the growing enthusiasm for the architecture of the 1930‘s, moves were made to have the Pavilion upgraded in 1986 to the highest Grade One category. In 1989, led by Cllr Jill Theis (who in 2004 was awarded an MBE for her services to local architecture), a small lobby group was formed to champion the building‘s cause. The group became a Trust, giving it more independence to actively work with the Council for the building‘s conservation and to access further funds. In 1990 the Trust appointed a London architectural practice – Troughton McAlsan to provide a long-term restoration and usage plan for the Pavilion – as well as initiating an education programme about the building for schools and local residents. By the early 1990‘s a plan had been drawn up which centred on the Pavilion‘s arts programme and the development of new audiences, as well as its restoration and redevelopment.
The De La Warr Pavilion Trust launched several campaigns to restore some of the more visible aspects of the Pavilion – the famous light-fitting, the remaining original furniture and the aluminium floor-plaque. The council considered the building‘s long-term, sustainable use and considered transferring its management to an independent charitable Trust. Piecemeal restoration work also took place, in particular, transforming the original lecture room into a “white cube” gallery space.
By the late 1990‘s major research had identified a gap in the South East’s cultural offering. The growing interest in contemporary visual arts (reflected in the emergence of Brit Art, the popularity of Tate Modern, plans for the Baltic in Gateshead) was the driving force in developing a new audience for the Pavilion, with a programme of arts and architecture unique to the region and appropriate to the building.
In 1998, a bid was proposed to the Arts Council Lottery Fund to transform the building into a centre for arts and architecture. The bid failed and, in response, Rother District Council, now funding the Pavilion to the tune of £1m a year, opted for the Pavilion to be put out to tender to the private sector. The prospect of the Pavilion being owned by the pub chain J.D. Weatherspoon, rallied the building‘s local, national and international supporters to initiate a campaign, reported in the national press, to save the Pavilion from becoming a public house.
By 2000, a new bid to the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery secured 6 million pounds for the restoration and redevelopment of the Pavilion into a centre for art, architecture and live performance. A new charity – the De La Warr Pavilion Charitable Trust – was set up and ownership and management of the Pavilion and its artistic programme were transferred to the Trust from the Council.
In December 2001, a contemporary new bandstand, designed by Niall McLaughlin in collaboration with local schoolchildren was unveiled and went on to win the 2002 RIBA South East Small Building Award. The bandstand is at the heart of the Pavilion outdoor summer programme.
The Pavilion closed in 2003 for the restoration and refurbishment led by architects John McAslan + Partners and funded by Arts Council England Lottery, Heritage Lottery and English Heritage as well as many other Trusts, Foundations and Individuals. It re-opened on 15 October 2005 with two art galleries, a new café bar, shop and foyer as well as the restoration of some key external and internal features including the outdoor roof space (to be accessed for the first time in a generation) and the original sun parlour. The opening weekend saw 10,000 visitors and garnered national and international press attention.
In the following years the exhibition programme presented works by international artists such as Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Jeremy Deller, Grayson Perry, Fiona Banner, Nathan Coley, Ben Nicholson and Joseph Beuys. Our archive can be viewed here.
The open roof space has been used as an exhibition space by Antony Gormley in 2010, Richard Wilson’s London 2012 commission Hang On A Minute Lads I’ve Got A Great Idea and Matt Calderwood’s Exposure (2014).
The original 1930s auditorium has shown a variety of international performing and recording artists such as Goldfrapp, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, the Heritage Orchestra, Kiri Te Kanawa, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and (DLWP’s honorary patron) Eddie Izzard.
In 2004 the Pavilion commissioned designers Barber Osgerby to design new furniture for the Café Bar and balconies, supported by the Edward Marshall Trust and produced by Established and Sons. These chairs are currently being restored.
The De La Warr Pavilion’s Studio was opened in 2008, its main purpose to be a space for a new education and audience engagement programme. It was funded by Ibstock Cory Environmental Trust and Eddie Izzard.
The De La Warr Pavilion has received a number of Royal visits in its history : King George V and Queen Mary visited the construction site in 1935 and The Duke and Duchess of York were at the opening in December of that year. Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1966 and HRH Duchess of Cornwall in 2006 and 2010 and agreed to become President of The De La Warr Pavilion in 2009. The Earl and Countess of Wessex visited in 2012.
In 2010 actor and comedian Eddie Izzard, who spent some of his boyhood in Bexhill became the De La Warr Pavilion’s Honorary Patron. Eddie has performed a series of gigs inside and outside the Pavilion to raise funds for the Studio and for the Auditorium. Eddie also generously supported Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea and contributed to the campaign for a new air-handling unit in the auditorium in 2015.
The Pavilion is at the heart of the regeneration agenda in Bexhill where there has been £145m invested in a new secondary school, a link road and the refurbishment of the sea-front and Bexhill Museum. Our refurbishment in 2005 has acted as a catalyst for regeneration along the south coast and was the first in a string of new cultural institutions including Towner Gallery Eastbourne, Jerwood Gallery Hastings, Turner Contemporary, Ditchling Museum, The Source Park and the new Pier in Hastings.
In 2013 the Towner Gallery, the Jerwood Gallery and the De La Warr Pavilion created the Coastal Culture Trail.
In 2010, the Pavilion celebrated its 75-year history by re-creating a 1936 image from the Daily Mirror, taken outside on the terrace with over 2000 people.
In 2015, the Pavilion celebrated its 80th anniversary by introducing a new logotype and inviting everyone to re-create the day that the Pavilion first opened – 12 December 1935.
Our future vision is to be a flagship centre for the arts and a vibrant cultural hub for the south east, owned by our communities; known for our programme nationally and internationally.
Building on our work since 2015 of developing audiences and key regional partnerships, and responding to our world class architecture and living heritage, we will allow greater access to cultural experiences and ensure that culture-led regeneration for the region has sustained momentum into the next decade and beyond.
A proposed capital project will re-instate the importance of DLWP’s modernist architecture and heritage; develop organisation resilience and financial, operational and environmental sustainability; develop the reach and engagement of our audiences; and increase our impact on diverse communities and unlock cultural tourism and sustainable economic growth in Bexhill and the south east.
Directors of the De La Warr Pavilion Trust :
Caroline Collier (1995-1999)
Alan Haydon (1999 – 2011)
Stewart Drew (2012 – present day)
If you would like to be part of our story, why not become a member?
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the De La Warr Pavilion, join us for a building tour or visit the Shop where you can purchase The De La Warr Pavilion, A Modernist Masterpiece by Alastair Fairley (£19.95).
To find out more about the original architect’s model of the De La Warr Pavilion, on show at the Bexhill Museum.