Peterlee and its pavilion were the fruit of the optimistic post-war climate, and their ideologies have sadly not stood the test of time very well. [Click for pictures of the Pavilion, View with houses and the Pavilion’s original interior.]
Peterlee New Town was designated in 1948 to establish a recreational and shopping centre for southeast Durham and to provide alternative employment for the ex-miners. The initial architect and planner of the New Town was Berthold Lubetkin. He saw Peterlee as the apogee of his career, as it would have encapsulated his life long professional ambitions. Unfortunately his Masterplan ended up being rejected in 1950 and this move drove the great architect to resign and retire from the architectural profession.
Sir George Grenfell Baines, the masterplanner of Aycliffe New Town, took over the task in 1952 and started to build very quickly. The quality and design were soon judged to be poor, and it was decided to bring in a visual arts consultant to treat the housing and landscaping as a total concept. Victor Pasmore, the artist and designer appointed Master of Painting at King’s College, Newcastle, was selected for his ideas of the affinity of cubist painting with architecture in terms of ‘the concept and structure of space’. What ensued was visually exciting flat-roof housing with brickwork and factory prefabricated timber infill panels. The houses were grouped as units, into patterns with patio gardens and courtyards, parking squares and open spaces, a radical departure from the bland housing generated by the earlier scheme.
The idea of the Pavilion stemmed from the need to emphasize the focal point made by the small lake which separated the road from the pedestrian system. The Pavilion is actually a sort of abstract concrete bridge spanning the shallow lake. Victor Pasmore described it as ‘an architecture and sculpture of purely abstract form through which to walk, in which to linger and on which to play, a free and anonymous monument which, because of its independence, can life the activity and psychology of an urban housing community on to a universal plane.’
Pasmore was certainly successful in that as indeed, many people ‘lingered’ and ‘played’, unfortunately, not of the innocent sort which was envisaged: the sculpture became canvas for graffiti and meeting ground for unsociable activities.
Back in 1998, the Pavilion became a cause celebre when English Heritage recommended that the structure be listed Grade II* and that Tony Banks, the then Secretary of State, refused to take EH’s advice partly because of local ‘public hostility’ and the fact that it was the scene for ‘undesirable activities’.
The Pavilion’s fate has been in the balance for some years and it was rumoured that the local authority was looking into its possible demolition. However, Easington District Council has showed considerable maturity in its outlook and has come to realise that the Pavilion could act as a catalyst and attract cultural tourism to this otherwise neglected part of the country. I am very glad to report that it is now proposed to extend the lake, so that the Pavilion would stand wholly within it, and thus protected from attack or misuse in various ways. This simple initiative would both appease local concern and ensure that the Pavilion continues to grace the otherwise rather bland environment.
Although some of the flavour of the open rolling integration of landscape and architecture that Pasmore imagined can still be felt, most of the housing has been altered in appearance, with pitched roofs and uPVC windows now in abundance. The Pavilion is certainly the most striking design feature surviving in a more or less original condition, although it has suffered vandalism and neglect and can no longer be crossed as a bridge, as its steps were removed in the early 1980s. It is certainly the only surviving element embodying the idealism that once informed Peterlee New Town and, in national and international terms, is a very rare example of a truly spatial creation, crossing the boundaries of art and architecture.
Acknowledgement: ‘A Canny Weekend’, Elain Harwood, C20 event notes, 1995, as well various items by James Dunnett.