Victor Pasmore's Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee
Seeing the Apollo Pavilion today, it’s hard to imagine how it ever seemed like a good idea. Designed by artist Victor Pasmore and built between 1963 and 1970 in Peterlee, a new town in County Durham, it’s an abstract concrete er, thing - half architecture, half sculpture. At eighty-two feet wide, it's a hulking great brute, spectacularly out-of-scale to everything around it. It’s not so much ugly as inappropriate. Loathed by many, but loved by a dedicated few, it is at once a symbol of the idealism of modernism and the new town movement, and the epitome of where it went horribly wrong.
When Peterlee was founded in 1948, Modernist hero Berthold Lubetkin was brought in as master planner but when his proposals for high-rise living proved unsuitable for mining terrain he left, disillusioned, and become a farmer. Abstract artist Victor Pasmore who was then Master of Painting at Kings College in Newcastle-upon-Tyne stepped into the breach. He designed “The Pivvy” as it's known locally as a bridge and focal point in a problematic area of the Sunny Blunts housing estate where a lake divides the housing estate and the road. Aspirations were high, and it was named The Apollo Pavilion after the moon mission which was reaching for the stars around the same time
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 lift the activity and psychology of an urban housing community on to a universal plane.’ Well, he was half-right. People lingered and played alright, but not in a good way. Almost immediately it became a haven for vandals and teeny-tipplers. To add insult to injury, a local government spat ensued when the Peterlee Development Corporation that commissioned the £33,000 work was wound up and the Easington District Council which inherited it refused to touch it with a bargepole, or more usefully a paintbrush.
Today it is truly a depressing site - dingy and grey, concrete spalling all over, the murals barely visible with the lake emitting a repellent stench in the background. Public opposition has grown to the point where local councillor Joan Maslin, the Pavilion’s most outspoken critic, tried to enlist the Army, The Prince of Wales and even Jimmy Savile to get rid of it. In 1982 Pasmore himself became involved and faced the local community. He magnanimously commented that the graffiti had humanised his work and suggested, sensibly some might think, that perhaps the locals causing the damage should be removed instead. As a compromise, the steps were demolished, making it less accessible. Sadly this also rendered it fairly useless and even more imposing as walking under its great grey bulk is about as enjoyable as walking over it.
Turned down for Grade II listing in 1998 its future is still undecided, but not as bleak as it was. For all its detractors the pavilion has a few dedicated fans, some of whom established the Pasmore Pavilion Steering Group to lobby in its favour. A public consultation generated ideas to revitalise the space and according to the Risky Buildings website:
Proposals for both seasonal and permanent structures with controlled bridge access are being discussed to allow the pavilion to be used as an event space. This in combination with the conversion of an original house into museum would turn this pure abstract form into a place for interaction in Peterlee. The steering group is currently trying to obtain lottery funding for the renovation project. The plans for the project have not been finalised but will include the full renovation of the pavilion (together with its murals and sculpture), the restoration of the neighbouring house to its original 1950s new town specifications for the purpose of housing a visitor centre, together with a bridge-link providing a walkway between the two structures.
It’s hard to know if these ambitious plans can counteract years of neglect and decay. Gazing at the Pavilion from its custom-built viewing platform it’s undeniably striking, but its condition and sheer out-of-placeness are hard to ignore. In the spirit of optimism in which it was created let’s hope the plans for regeneration work. If not, giving it a lick of paint and moving it somewhere a little more scenic would be worth investigating. It would be a shame for all that idealism to go to waste.
Update: July 2009The Apollo Pavilion has been completely refurbished and reopened in time for its 40th anniversary. The new Apollo Pavilion website contains the story of the refurbishment and many original archive photos.
Apollo Pavilion photos
More of Anne's Apollo Pavilion photos
- Victor Pasmore
- Risky Buildings: Apollo Pavilion (Pasmore Pavilion)
- Peterlee Town Council: Victor Pasmore and the Apollo Pavilion
- The Pasmore Foundation
- The Twentieth Century Society
How to get there
From the A19 turn towards Peterlee. Take the 2nd right beside Our Lady of the Rosary Church into Passfield Way. Oakerside Drive is 3rd on the left (signposted Pasmore’s Apollo Pavillion). Parking is signposted. Go downhill from the car park past the flats and along the path. You can't miss it. Google map.