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New Town artistry

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technical & practice

Victor Pasmore's much-maligned pavilion was just one part of his work at Peterlee. What should happen to it now?

Thirty years after its completion, the largest collaboration between artist and architect in the history of British architecture now survives imperfectly, overlaid by the results of pragmatic repair and individualisation, and threatened by the kind of incomprehension it attempted to defeat.

The involvement of the artist Victor Pasmore in the New Town of Peterlee, County Durham, for 23 years from 1954 is unparalleled. But the real visionary was AVWilliams, the general manager of Peterlee, who turned up at Pasmore's house at midnight for their first discussion, so impassioned was he with the idea of curing 'New Town blues' by bringing an artist to work with architects.

When Pasmore said he had no knowledge of building, Williams replied: 'That doesn't matter. What I need is a fresh eye. They'll provide the technique.'

1 As Pasmore himself described it: 'The general manager decided to go outside the architectural profession and appoint an independent artist to try and create a fresh initiative from a new aesthetic standpoint. As I saw it, the problem was not only one of devising a new architectural style for the housing, but also a new orientation for the whole urban layout in respect to the spatial relation between the housing and road system.'

2 Pasmore (1908-98) had recently come north to teach in the art school of Newcastle University, where he worked alongside Richard Hamilton to create one of the leading 'Basic Design' courses in Britain, strongly linked to the ideas of the Independent Group. Through the architect Gordon Ryder, who had come north to work with Berthold Lubetkin on the abortive first scheme for Peterlee in 1948, Pasmore became aware of the gap between the original vision for a New Town with a compete commitment to Modernist principles, such as Lubetkin wanted, and the conventional semi-detached housing which was beginning to appear in its stead on the windswept but beautiful site, east of the A19.

Challenging the suburban norm, whether in the public or private sector, was a running theme of postwar environmental campaigning, from Ian Nairn's 'Outrage' issue of The Architectural Review to the willing acceptance of high-rise.

The plan types at Peterlee were already fixed and Pasmore's opportunities in the south-west area, which Williams offered him, were limited to the exteriors of the housing and the grouping and layouts. Working in a team with two willing architects, Frank Dixon and Peter Daniels, Pasmore devised a vocabulary of white-painted boarding and black or grey brick, in which windows were positioned with the eye of an abstract painter, although not always for the convenience of the inhabitants. The desired density and sense of enclosure were achieved, but in an unintended way, Pasmore reproduced the picturemaking propensity of the first garden suburbs and still failed to suggest anything like a real city.

Pasmore's houses were linked together by wooden-slatted screens, and finally, owing to the cost advantages of industrialised construction, in two long terraces. Most of the housing was two-storey, rising to four or five at most, because of the danger of mining subsidence. The plan layouts were made more compressed, patterned on paper against winding roads to achieve something like the effect of certain of Pasmore's paintings and reliefs.

The intention, as Pasmore explained in a number of persuasive and articulate texts, was to create an artistic effect through movement, rather than static composition - something he explored simultaneously in the reliefs, featuring projecting bars and floating transparent planes, which formed much of his artistic output during these years.

On paper, it all sounds like the fulfilment of Modernism's dream, of the convergence of art and design in the reality of life, but it was the dream of Theo van Doesburg in the 1920s, or of Ben Nicholson in the 1930s, rather than the reality of social life.

The Peterlee housing was compromised from the outset by poor quality construction that has meant that nearly all the houses have had pitched roofs added.

Everyone wished the experiment well, apart from the RIBA which initially tried to prevent it. The Architectural Review spoke in 1961 of 'the nice balance of unity and variety that has been achieved in these houses; also their intricate but systematic grouping, providing usable outdoor pedestrian space yet preserving a compact and fully built-up character.'

3 One of the greatest enthusiasts was T DanSmith, who wrote that Pasmore 'did not plan so much as caress the site.'

4 This is misleading, in that one of Pasmore's most successful tactics was to work against the contour lines and contrast with them.

There was, however, no breakthrough to a convincing demonstration of a new concept of teamwork or of three-dimensional art. As an outsider, Pasmore enjoyed freedoms which the architects on the spot were denied, but did little that other architects might not have done if permitted. Interviewed by Peter Fuller in 1988, Pasmore was quite willing to admit that his input was purely, if legitimately, aesthetic, arguing that: 'If you make a nice, attractive environment, that's in the interest of the house-owner too.'

5 Peterlee failed to achieve the convergence of art and life which the Brutalists and the Independent Group hoped for. It might have been an impossible aim anyway but, in the age of Archigram, Pasmore's playing with rectangles was an anachronism.

Some of his models show a more generous use of primary colours than emerged in the finished scheme.

The widespread 1950s admiration for the bleak and gritty north is untempered by the vitality of its folk art. The next generation created the Byker Wall and the open-air museum at Beamish instead.

The unrelenting abstraction of Pasmore's vision is most demonstrated in the Apollo Pavilion, the main piece of 'pure art' built at the same scale as the housing, crossing the dammed stream in the area called Sunny Blunts. Completed in 1970 and named after the moon-landing programme, the pavilion was a development in Pasmore's own oeuvre from a competition-design for a monument to the physicist Enrico Fermi, made in 1951.

The design passed through a number of stages, coming to completion in the form of a wide-span concrete slab with upturned ends, bearing a complex of wall-planes and pergolas of a house-like scale. In order to get funding, it was described as a bridge, although a serpentine path below it allows one to cross dryshod. It offered the experience of walking through a suggestive if nonfunctional series of spaces.

The inner faces of the end walls, which act like courtyard-garden walls to the central 'house', were given painted motifs in black. The whole piece is reflected in the water and acts effectively as a landscape feature, as if it might be a Palladian bridge in its park-like setting. The pure shapes of the model were compromised by the commonplace safety railings on the stairs, and in the enthusiasm for concrete (engineered with great solidity by Roy Bolsover), the potential of colour was overlooked, so the work lacks the sparkle of Pasmore's corresponding artworks.

While the pavilion's shortcomings must be admitted, it is still a unique and important work, currently under threat. It was accepted at the outset, without demur, as part of the whole artistic package, and photographs show children happily playing on it and in the lake in front of it. Pasmore dated its decline to the transfer of the housing from the New Town Development Corporation to Easington District Council in 1978, with a resulting lack of maintenance. He returned in 1982 to meet local residents, who complained that it had become a focus for vandalism, and declared himself delighted that it had been appropriated by graffiti. Soon after, the steps leading up to the bridge were demolished, but the 'problems' (the perception of which is exacerbated by the proximity of housing) have remained.

Proposed by English Heritage for a Grade II* listing in 1996, the pavilion was turned down two years later by Tony Banks, then a minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, after strong local lobbying.

(Peterlee is in the constituency of Sedgefield, after all. ) The Twentieth Century Society offered to raise funds for a feasibility study on repair and integration into the immediate environment, through lighting and landscaping, but was persuaded that such moves would only be counterproductive. Since then, nothing much has happened, although there is still a strong local feeling in favour of demolition and a resentment of outside intervention.

The forthcoming exhibition about the pavilion at the Architectural Association offers the opportunity for making positive plans for its future. It is unusual as a conservation case in that it offers no possibility for conversion to another use; neither is it in danger of collapse. Indeed, its demolition would be expensive and difficult.

The pavilion raises a general issue about the future of the site-specific artworks which are now proliferating. Does the artistic community as a whole take responsibility for them?

Could the pavilion be accessioned by the Tate, for example? Could it be the basis for new public-art interventions, becoming a sort of open-air gallery itself? Is it appropriate to depend on the listing process to protect works of art, even though a number of post-war sculptures and murals are individually listed?

More immediately, can a sensitive coordinated policy to mitigate vandalism and antisocial behaviour around the pavilion be funded and implemented, answering the complaints of residents? Or should such behaviour be tolerated, or even celebrated, as Pasmore himself suggested?

Is the pavilion a priceless gift to the town, or a hideous liability?

It is important in its context not only as an isolated work, but as a major statement of Pasmore's involvement in Peterlee. There is little doubt that the future will find this a more engaging story than does the present. The combination of alterations to the housing and the unfashionability of high-minded Constructivism have prevented Peterlee from becoming a cult site for architectural pilgrimage, but the example of the revaluation of Trellick Tower and Keeling House should prepare us for the least expected U-turns of taste, even on a popular level.

It would be tragic if, such as in the case of Brynmawr, Peterlee became famous for something that could no longer be visited because it had been demolished.

With acknowledgments to John Pasmore for information and photographs.

The exhibition on the Pasmore Pavilion is at the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Sq, London WC1 from 8 November to 5 December

Footnotes

1 Victor Pasmore, 'Peterlee - the South West Area'. Pasmore Papers

2 Victor Pasmore, letter to Richard Brosch, October 1981. Pasmore Papers

3 'Housing at Peterlee'. Architectural Review CXXIX, 1961, page 88

4 T Dan Smith, An Autobiography , Oriel Press,1970, page132

5 Peter Fuller, 'Victor Pasmore: The Case for Modern Art'. Modern Painters I, No 4,1989

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