Apollo Pavilion

3 min read  ·  14 Mar 2024

HENI Talks presents Victor Pasmore's Apollo Pavilion in Durham

In the latest film from HENI Talks, Apollo Pavilion, architecture historian Stephen Parnell invites viewers to explore one of the UK’s most significant public artworks. Intertwining the disciplines of architecture and sculpture, the Apollo Pavilion marked a turning point in Modernist art and expanded the possibilities of public artworks.

The cultural context in which the Apollo Pavilion (completed in 1969) was conceived was a transformative one. As the boundaries of science and technology were being pushed in the 1960s, exemplified by the ‘Space Race’, an exuberant optimism and openness to future possibilities that carried over into art and architecture. The growth of Modernist architecture ushered in highly articulated, geometric forms that celebrated a building's internal structures and modern materials, namely concrete. The period after the Second World War also saw the development of post-war new towns across Britain based on utopian ideals for the future, often integrating Modernist principles into their design.

Peterlee, the home of the Apollo Pavilion, was one such town, located in the northeast of England. British artist Victor Pasmore was appointed Consulting Director of Architectural Design for its planning. Pasmore had been widely regarded as one of the most important British artists of the pre- and post-war period. He had shocked the art world in the late 1940s by abandoning his naturalistic, figurative painting practice and moving toward abstraction in compositions that emphasised space, colour, and line. In 1957, Pasmore staged a show simply titled An Exhibit, in which he moved these explorations into three-dimensional space, creating a total environment of suspended geometric shapes, some semi-transparent, hanging from wires.

Victor Pasmore continued this exploration of the relationship between object and space, and the human viewer moving within and around it, through the Apollo Pavilion, on which he centred the entire town of Peterlee. Named for the optimism of the Apollo Space Program, the Apollo Pavilion was initially conceived as a central gathering place for the community of Peterlee. A work of purely aesthetic geometry cast entirely in concrete, the Apollo Pavilion takes on a sculptural form, yet large enough to be intimately explored by the human audience. This blurring of the boundaries between the disciplines of sculpture and architecture, abstract art and Modernist architecture, was at the heart of the project, and the Pavilion is considered the first public artwork in the UK that was produced on an architectural scale.

Abstract, curvilinear black shapes were painted onto the sides of the Apollo Pavilion, creating a tension between structural and organic forms, echoing the contrast between the pavilion itself and the human moving through it. This tension is heightened by the placement of the Pavilion within a natural setting, above a park and a small artificial lake conceived by Pasmore. The Apollo Pavilion, then, was really a holistic, forward-looking artwork, integrating the technologies and engineering of the future with nature and the human community.

Despite Victor Pasmore’s optimistic vision for the Apollo Pavilion, its reception by the local community was not always positive. The Pavilion became a hotspot for graffiti tagging and its stair access was eventually blocked by the local council, causing it to slowly decay and become detached from the community it was intended for. At one point, locals even called for the Pavilion’s demolition. However, with increasing interest in Modernism and Brutalist architecture in the 200s0s, a group of activists and artists rallied to save the Apollo Pavilion. In 2009, it was restored and installed with new feature lighting thanks to funds from the National Heritage Lottery Fund, and in 2011 the Pavilion received a Grade-II listing.

Today, the Apollo Pavillion stands as a monument to progress, testament to a key moment in the history of British art and architecture. Now not only integrated with the community of Peterlee, in recent years the Pavillion has also become the site of collaborative art installations with artist collectives and charities like Artichoke Trust, ensuring that Victor Pasmore’s vision of engagement for Apollo Pavilion lives on.