Peterlee, Pasmore and Tower Hamlets' Old Flo: a past era
[THIS WEEK] Graham Farmer’s study on the reception of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion has dispriting relevance to Tower Hamlets sale of a Henry Moore sculpture, writes James Pallister
I was in Newcastle a few weeks ago, meeting a series of practices and players in the city’s small but lively architectural scene. At the University of Newcastle, Director of Architecture Graham Farmer talked me through the school’s approach and its relationship to the region. In contrast with the neighbouring Northumbria School of Architecture, most of his students leave the city on graduation, with recent cohorts dispersing to London, Germany, Switzerland, Australia; wherever the work is. Despite this movement, much of the studio work is rooted in the region.
As we chatted about the particular nature of the area my eye was drawn to triptych of black and white photos stacked to the right of his neatly arranged workspace. They were of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion, a key piece in the carefully conceived landscape of Peterlee, the New Town built for East Durham’s mine workers, initially masterplanned by Berthold Lubetkin, then hurriedly finished by George Grenfell Baines (later founder of BDP). Students had used the contentious pavilion and its interpretation by residents to explore the duties of the designer and the degree to which they try and challenge or accommodate local opinion.
He’d recently explored this further in a paper (due to publish in January in the Journal of Urban Design). One of the slightly dispirting observations it made was that whether they loved or hated it, residents were united in one view: resigned recognition that it belonged to an era that had passed, one where working people were deemed to be sufficiently important to have top class architects and designers spend time creating something just for them.
His observations brought to mind the recent controversy over Tower Hamlets decision to sell off a Henry Moore sculpture, on the grounds that the Borough cannot afford its upkeep. Draped Seated Woman, or ‘Old Flo’, was given to the GLC in 1957 by Henry Moore for a significantly reduced rate. It was used in the 1958 Stifford Housing housing development in Stepney.
For 15 years it’s been in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and one of Mayor Luftur Ratman’s arguments for selling the sculpture is that the insurance payments are a drain on Council resources. There’s plenty utilitarian arguments both for and against selling it, and it seems the outburst of popular and high profile opposition to selling it has garnered some practical, cost-effective ways in which it could have been kept.
One of the tragedies of its sale is less about the residents of Tower Hamlets not being able to see it (as has been the case for 15 years, unless they travel to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where it is on show), but that its leadership has further degraded civic life, not just with another sell-off of state property, but by not fighting for the idea that ordinary people are worthy of outstanding housing, education and art. According to Farmer and Pendlebury the residents of Peterlee think that era has passed. It would have been nice for Tower Hamlets to prove them wrong.