It may have been voted Britain's third most popular modern building in a recent poll, but in reality, this 1930s people's palace has become tatty outside and garish inside. This is what John McAslan & Partners is doing about it.
Visiting the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea is like stepping back to a time when modern architecture was just that.

This icon of a modern seaside building in East Sussex, with its spiralling staircase enveloped by a curving glass bow front, still seems as fresh and daring as when it was completed in 1935 to a competition design by the German expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn, in partnership with Serge Chermeyeff. And on a sunny day in February, the sun worshippers still stretch out on deckchairs on its south-facing terrace and balcony, just as they would have done in the 1930s.

But the sad truth is, despite being part-way through a phased refurbishment, the pavilion is still struggling to function as the people’s palace it was designed to be. Much of its exterior is dilapidated, and large internal spaces are vacant or underused.

In 1991, a masterplan by architect John McAslan & Partners (at that time Troughton McAslan), won a competition to restore the grade I-listed building fabric while rejuvenating its public amenities. To date, three phases of renovation, costing £2m in total, have been undertaken under McAslan’s guidance.

The most recent phase, completed last September, was the £1m internal refurbishment of the auditorium. In 1995, an art gallery on the first floor was converted out of a municipal conference centre that languished with its high clerestory windows blocked out by a suspended ceiling. And during the first phase in 1992, the most serious dilapidations to the building shell was tackled – the corrosion in the steel balustrading and structural frame on the south side.

As for the auditorium, pavilion project manager Alan Hayden claims that attendance figures have increased since the improvements. “We are getting more positive feedback from audiences on the enjoyment factor of performances, as well as comfort, sound, warmth, refreshments and the all-round service we offer,” he says.

The job is far from finished, though. “Our aim is to create a centre for art and architecture on three floors offering some of the best exhibition facilities in the country, with a programme to match,” says Hayden. “To do that, we need to raise £5m from lottery funds.”

To some extent, the pavilion has been a victim of changing priorities at the arts lottery funds. In 1995, when McAslan first submitted a £5m bid for improvements, it was asked to resubmit a more ambitious programme. But by the time the practice resubmitted a revised scheme in 1997, lottery funds had been cut and a commitment to landmark projects had given way to a policy of supporting smaller-scale local initiatives. As a small concession, however, the lottery did come up with £620 000 for design development.

The recent £1m refurbishment of the auditorium was funded entirely by Rother District Council. “This was partly out of sheer necessity – to repair air-handling plant that was packing up – and partly it was a statement to the lottery fund that the council was still committed to supporting the pavilion,” says Adam Brown, director of John McAslan & Partners.

More recently, the council’s patience is showing signs of running out. After a switch of political control from Liberal Democrat to Conservative, the council is revising its approach to the pavilion in order to save on running costs, which are currently in the region of £1m a year. As well as proceeding with the lottery funds application, the council is also approaching several private operators to run the pavilion.

To Brown, the change of direction under consideration is a disappointment. “One of the unique aspects of the pavilion is that it is still run by the local authority that developed it nearly 70 years ago,” he says. “It would be a pity to lose that continuity.”

Restoration theatre

The largest and most recent phase of refurbishment to De La Warr Pavilion was the restoration of the 1000-seat auditorium. This was completed last September for £1m, including fees, furniture and lighting equipment.

According to architect Adam Brown of John McAslan & Partners, the bulk of the work consisted of restoring the finishes to walls, ceilings and floors. To get an authentic look, the detailed plans and drawings of Mendelsohn and Chermeyeff’s original competition design and 1930s photographs of the building were studied.

The foyer, in particular, had suffered from a brash 1970s makeover, complete with a large bar and loudly patterned nylon carpet. The original plain plastered walls and ceiling have now been restored, and a more discreet bar of light beechwood panels built.

Within the main hall itself, fibreboard wall panels, a fibrous plaster ceiling with distinctive dimpled coffering, a sprung sycamore-strip floor and panelling in Australian walnut veneer have all been restored or replaced to match the original. The mechanical heating and ventilation system has also been extensively refurbished, with many components replaced and sound attenuators added.

But after careful consideration, the project team decided not to reproduce every original element in replica. Along the windows on either side, fin radiators that do not look out of place in the art deco hall have replaced traditional, but clumsy, column radiators. Seating has also been replaced with a less heavy design.

The project team balked at the original colour scheme. “We took the view that nobody liked the original colours, which looked incredibly heavy and uncomfortable,” says Brown. As shown in a drawing at the RIBA Drawings Collection, the original scheme combined buff-coloured walls and curtains, white ceiling, dark blue chairs, chocolate-brown veneered doors and panelling, and a dark brown carpet. As a small step towards a lighter and brighter feel, an aquamarine carpet has replaced the brown one.

Backstage, the changing rooms have been modernised, and above, the concealed asbestos-cement roof has been replaced in the nearest modern equivalent – profiled steel.

The installation was carried out at breakneck speed in only five weeks last August, which was the only gap in the performance programme. A £850 000 contract was awarded to Crawley-based James Longley with no longer than a two-week lead-in. Key components, including seats, lift, light fittings and carpets, were preordered for later installation by the contractor.

“We worked in two shifts from seven in the morning until midnight, seven days a week,” recalls Langley’s site manager, Ian Maxey. “The biggest headache was collating all the works packages and making sure that when the electrician finished one evening, the plasterer would be ready to come in the next morning.

“To keep things moving, we operated a query and instruction system. If I came across a design problem, I would fax the architect, and he would fax me back with an answer straight away. The formal architect’s instructions followed later.”

Last-minute glitches included installing additional structural support above the ceiling for the lighting gantries. “We jumped on it straight away, and the curtains went up on time,” says Maxey.