An apology for Apollo Pavilion: why we should celebrate Peterlee’s architectural blemish

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By all accounts, Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion is an eyesore. Enveloped by the back alleys of Sunny Blunts estate, I walk past abandoned fridges and hot-rod Vauxhall Corsas to find it sitting uncomfortably amongst the silence of a Saturday afternoon, with only a lone dog walker creeping up the path towards me. At first glance, it recalls a ‘find the area’ question in a GCSE maths paper: harshly geometric, intangibly abstract – dull, even. Permeating the concrete structure is a boggy lake overgrown with algae, which nurtures Rubicon cartons and disposable vapes. By now, the dog walker is neighbouring me, so I ask him what he thinks about the pavilion. He turns to me, then to where I’m pointing, and as if it had just risen from the ground, turns back slightly wide-eyed, and says, ‘Oh, I’ve lived here for 60 years and never really noticed it’. After a bit of prying, I manage to get a steadfast opinion; ‘I think it’s ugly’. So why then has such an innovative and unconventional work of architecture fallen by the wayside and why should we give it a second chance? Maybe not for its monotonous rigidity or lack of embellishment, but for its optimism. 

So why then has such an innovative and unconventional work of architecture fallen by the wayside and why should we give it a second chance?

Designed by abstract artist Victor Pasmore, and built in 1969, the Apollo Pavilion functions as a nucleus to the surrounding Sunny Blunts housing estate. Pasmore wanted the structure to act as an ‘emotional centre’ for his urban design, the way a church would in past centuries. The pavilion certainly has an interactive and monumental feel to it: alter-like blocks reveal themselves on a pulpit mezzanine, while a low-ceilinged under passage serves as an interlocutor between either side of the estate. It really feels as if something momentous, spiritual even, could happen here. Yet by 1982, Apollo Pavilion fostered acts of anti-social behaviour and vandalism. By then, the outer layer of the building was tattooed in graffiti, while the inside became a hotspot for loitering adolescents. A rally of locals proposed a redevelopment of the land; to knock down the pavilion and fill in the lake, with local councillor Joan Maslin calling it ‘a dirty lump of concrete, no more than a monstrosity and an eyesore’. This, however, proved too expensive and it remained, bruised and neglected, until a lottery-funded full restoration in 2008. Nowadays it is certainly far from its initial glory but is evocative of its turbulent history.

The Apollo Pavilion represents in our minds a failure of a utopian future that was never concretised

Moreover, it is forgotten. A relic from a past time that only once every few years can attract a moment in the sun. Jo Stanness’s 2018 prints of the Apollo Pavilion echo its spatial regularity in a florid array of colours, while in the following year, Steve Messam’s encapsulation of the monument in bright orange inflatables softened its hard exterior. Now a regular in the Lumiere, the Pavilion garners glowing reviews for a beguiling facade. The problem with these instalments, and creative interaction with the pavilion, is that it acts only to juxtapose Pasmore’s original Brutalist design. Maybe this is to create a stimulating, provocative contrast, but I feel the reason is more deep-rooted than this and is the key to appreciating the seemingly indigestible Apollo Pavilion in its unadulterated form. The Apollo Pavilion represents in our minds a failure of a utopian future that was never concretised; the aspiration of architects who looked towards a utilitarian and honest future. We only have to look so far as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, set in the Thamesmead estate of East London, or Soviet ‘Khrushchevkas’ to see why we associate such architecture with the dystopian and authoritarian.

I propose, however, we look towards these buildings for their sincerity and lowliness, not their appearance. They are bare, powerful and optimistic; echoing the post-war confidence of the revival of society, the beginning of a new epoch in history. The Apollo Pavilion, named after the Apollo Space Program, embodies all these characteristics. Its rough concrete is honest, its figure is harsh yet progressive and bold. It is not intended to be Pasmore’s magnum opus or an architectural pilgrimage site, rather a singular, striking vision for the future of housing and communal living. Apollo Pavilion is characterised by an optimism that many other developments of the time lack. Now to many people the pavilion represents failure, with its concrete sporting a greyish buff. However, we must at least admire Apollo Pavilion’s determined attitude and ambition.

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One thought on “An apology for Apollo Pavilion: why we should celebrate Peterlee’s architectural blemish

  • A fascinating reminder of this brutalist miniature, whose name echoes NASA’s famous space program, and by association the Greek god Apollo, regarded as the most beautiful of the deities, an irony not lost on the Pavilion’s detractors. Pasmore gave this pioneering architectural public art- sculpture to Peterlee thirty years before Gormley’s Angel of the North landed in the region,
    and though the new boy on the block gets all the plaudits and photo shoots, Pasmore’s concrete C20 folly- for surely that is also what it is – deserves its place in the sun; after all, handsome young Apollo is the god of that peerless celestial orb.

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