- Rothesay Pavilion, Isle of Bute, 30-31 May, 2015
Rothesay, the main town on the Isle of Bute, looks straight back at the Ayrshire coast. Like many seaside resorts, the town’s appeal lies in a slightly careworn yet resolutely cheerful demeanour. Mix n’match Victorian guest houses crowd together, spilling over with hanging baskets and floral displays. Larger hotels, emblazoned with the chunky, sculptural letters which spell out their names jostle for space with charity shops, Scots-Italian chippies and steamed-up, no-frills tearooms. Argyle Street, which runs the length of the sea front, forms a large crescent shape – outstretched, welcoming arms which beckon to and encircle the ferry from Wemyss Bay. This, apparently, Scotland’s Madeira, verdant palm trees and all.
On the north side of the promenade, the Rothesay Pavilion stands like a scaled-down, dry- docked cruise-liner, the outcome of father-and-son architectural practice J & J Carrick’s successful competition entry for the design of a Scottish seaside pavilion. When it opened in 1938 the Pavilion was an assured architectural statement, ‘the set piece of the front with little if anything of its period to equal it in Scotland’i. It followed the Carricks’ 1935-6 design for Cragburn Pavilion in Gourock, another venue for theatre and big band entertainment by the sea, now sadly gone. At Rothesay, the Pavilion occupies a space between International Style Modernism and Streamline Moderne, remaining ‘suave, stylish and soigné’ today, in spite of its physical decline in recent decadesii.
If the strict adherence to Modernist tenets regarding materials was sometimes less than ‘pure’ on the part of the Carricks, their prolific work throughout Ayrshire in the 1930s and ’40s demonstrated a growing interest in and reflection of contemporary architectural trends in style and form – the Pavilion at Rothesay (and other works such as Ayr Ice Rink) was designed only a few years after Mendelsohn and Chermayeff’s De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea and Oliver Hill’s Midland Hotel at Morecambe, amongst others. The rich architectural subject matter, then, is surely ‘the draw’ for Ally Wallace’s exhibition Seaside Modernity, a body of work made exclusively in response to the Pavilion. Or is it?
Exhibited in the ‘prow’ of the building, a light-drenched ‘daring bulge’iii which formerly housed the first floor cafe in a glazed, bow-fronted, cantilevered space, Wallace’s small-scale drawings and studies in pencil, ink or gouache are shown together with cut-out card ‘drawings’, a large hanging textile and small resin plaster casts. A film is also screened as part of the show – a guided tour of the building interspersed with sequences of digitally drawn and animated sketches of the site. All are exhibited and installed in a less than ordinary manner – drawings are not wall-mounted but hang from slender strips of wood, like clothes on a line. A small card cut-out – a study of a window and curtain – is shown on the window it depicts, that graceful, expansive sweep of curved glazing. Elsewhere, an A6 sketchbook with studies in coloured biro hangs, as though falling or thrown, suspended from an interior pillar in the space. Other artworks are attached to Wallace’s bespoke timber constructions while Pavilion furniture – a table, a clothes rail, rope barriers and screen stands – act as spindly, precarious plinths for drawings and sculpture, themselves sculptural, to create a whole work of art, an installation which reveals Wallace’s sensitive familiarity with the Pavilion and his desire to integrate these new works with the existing fabric, fixtures and fittings of the building. The drawings and sketches, shown as they are, could be, variously, flags, banners, or elaborate spurs. Standing in the space, they appear as though poised on the brink of a performance, waiting to be animated. As an installation, the works could be anthropomorphic, kinetic sculptures in repose, choreographed and ready to move – to spin, twist and twirl across the polished floor.
Many of the studies are recognisable in relation to their subject matter, but often only just. These are not – and are not intended to be – ‘accurate’ architectural drawings, mapping and describing the space forensically, all measurement and precision. Rather, they are glances, impressions, fragments and interpretations – abstracted details presented in situ. They are self-referential drawings of a building presented within the building which they purport to describe. But intriguingly, while performing, to some degree, their mimetic function, many of the drawings are also somehow out of kilter, like the building itself in its present state – they are contradictory, imprecise, subject to change, layered. Thus, the works can operate in different ways, beyond their immediate reference points. The small resin casts, for example, might be shown within physical range of the interior decorative woodwork and radiator details from which they were taken, but, equally, they could function removed from this context as minimalist, Modernist netsuke, small enough to be held in the palm of your hand, portable and precious.
Throughout the building, as is shown in detail in Wallace’s film (and experienced by visitors to the exhibition on their way from the entrance to the cafe space), a succession of later alterations, adjustments and additions to the interior seem to clash and jar with what we nostalgically imagine to be the purity and elegance of the original 1930s design. These apparent ‘improvements’, which took place decade upon decade as the use, requirements and tastes of the public changed, were sometimes aesthetic, sometimes functional and often, in latter years, pragmatic (typically to hide areas blighted by damp, damage or decay). All of these changes read now, of course, as ‘imperfections’, even travesties, to the design purist, but these palimpsests and overlays reveal the social history of the space. As the Pavilion stands on the brink of a major project to fully restore and refurbish the building to its ‘former glory’ (for which read, its original 1930s state) Wallace’s work is imbued with greater significance – the work – completed at the end of this phase of the building’s life, captures the metamorphosis, adaptation and change experienced by the site since its beginning, its history inscribed upon worn surfaces, scratched into false panelling and ground into threadbare carpets.
Writing of the De La Warr Pavilion in their book Modernism on Sea, Lara Feigel and Alexandra Harris recall a similar fate for Mendelsohn and Chermayeff’s design at Bexhill to that of the Carricks’ at Rothesay: ‘it was not long before the Bexhill curves were obscured again. After the war, when Modernist taste was in recession, attempts were made to give the Pavilion a feel of cosiness – just the sort of cluttered intimacy the building was designed to resist. Out came the carpets, deep-piled and patterned. Concrete pillars were clad in wood to give an olde-world feel, and trailing plants were draped over any offensively sharp edges. It was a travesty, but an immensely human one, and admirable in its way. It takes some audacity to fly so determinedly in the face of so authoritative a building’.iv
In his studies of the Rothesay Pavilion, Wallace encapsulates this layered, sometimes competing history of the building in the forms of many of his own works. In the large hanging textile work, for example, the exuberant splashes of acidic colour dyed into the cotton seem at odds with the spare, economical line drawings which repeat across its surface. They are evenly spaced across the fabric, but appear to be moving, curving and swarming over the surface like a heady, mesmerising screensaver or tanks on a battlefield, seen from above. The shapes we are looking at are line drawings of an exterior balustrade at the front of the building but they could be whistles, Art Deco banquettes or 70s tub chairs. We see them again, turning and shifting, as animated sequences in a film which acts as a travelogue or guided tour to the sights and sounds of the building.
Elsewhere, colourful gouache works on A3 paper could be pure abstraction, just colour and form if we did not have at hand (or foot) the immediate, architectural cross-reference of geometrically patterned Pavilion floors. Such drawings, as objects in their own right, could be seen to reference High Modernism if seen as stand-alone, abstract, flat, formal works, divorced from their context. But like the building which gave rise to them, the works, in their current, exhibited state, simultaneously allude to and undermine the very principles of Modernism through the nature of their display – contra medium-specific purity, they revel in external ‘real world’ subject matter, however quotidian. This is the essence of Wallace’s work. Seaside Modernity is not a homage to Modernist architecture or an attempt to reveal ‘forgotten’ architectural gems (there are more than enough of those in contemporary art). What we find here is an artist who has stumbled serendipitously across the object of his desire, an enthusiast who wants to know everything about his subject matter, good and bad. There is a delight in marginalia, absurdity, overlay and contradiction in Wallace’s work as it considers both the form and function of the Pavilion through a detailing of visual fragments from all eras of the building’s (almost) eighty year history.
The work both explicitly and implicitly records the various activities the Pavilion has hosted and continues to host. It is a record, however tangential, of the people who have worked, married, danced, shot, spun, and sung in the Pavilion. Every surface, corner, ceiling, banister, railing, flag-pole and floor carries with it the experiences, memories and the varied, changing tastes of the people who have occupied it. Wallace, then, examines a building whose history encompasses a dubious 1970s refurbishment, a Rifle Club firing range (located beneath the dance floor) and echoes of the Big Band era in capacious, dusty backstage dressing rooms, replete with built-in vanity cabinets, washbasins and discarded props. No doubt, too, it has played host to the transgressive acts played out by so many visitors to the British seaside, breaking from the mores and morals of their weekday existence.
Wallace’s work has been informed by careful, rigorous research conducted both by making work on site and by getting to know current workers, visitors and residents. Today, pre- restoration, the building still hosts tea-dances, once hugely popular, now more forlorn affairs as numbers dwindle amidst the cavernous ground floor theatre and dancehall. More in demand are the spin classes taken in a smaller room on the ground floor, whose pumping, hi-energy soundtracks incongruously reverberate around the building. Both are documented in the film through sound, as are anecdotes which similarly bring the building to life, beyond canonical design or architectural history. One interviewee, for example, recounts her childhood memories of rainy days when she and her playmate, the then caretaker’s daughter, played in the Pavilion and used the building’s multiple telephones to converse with
one another. To add to the excitement, she recalls in the film that it was ‘the first time I think I’d ever used a phone’. Likewise, in a conversation with the artist, a contemporary tea- dancer recalled the memory of Royal Navy sailors stationed in Bute in the late 1950s who joined other, local, eligible bachelors at Pavilion dances: ‘1958…Armada anchored in the bay…we had the Royal Navy, big band sounds, beautifully sprung floor and handsome farmers – how much more can a girl ask for?’
Wallace has observed how present day attempts to glamorise or smarten-up faded interiors for special events and functions (weddings, corporate events, birthdays) mean that the impossibly elegant, sweeping sea-view windows and all other walls and ceilings are swathed and swagged in acres of white fabric, obscuring any external view through a process of dense wrapping, like an inverted Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The film shows some of these cracks, layers, and histories with a keen eye for the forgotten corner and the inconvenient detail.
Over the course of the work’s production, Wallace was a regular visitor, inhabiting the space for days on end and given free reign to access-all-areas in which to make work and closely familiarise himself with the building. In tandem with the building itself, Seaside Modernity is multi-faceted in how it expresses and translates the history of a place. Wallace’s treatment of Rothesay Pavilion is the very opposite of what has become a trope in contemporary art – the cool, mannered, formal translation of classic Modernist design. This work breathes – it is human, flawed, mutable and full of colour.
Watch the short film here.
i Frank Arneill Walker and Fiona Sinclair, North Clyde Estuary – An Illustrated Architectural Guide, RIAS/Landmark Trust, 1992, p.159.
iii Frank Arneill Walker, The Buildings of Scotland: Argyll and Bute, Pevsner Architectural Guides, 2000, p.120.
iv Lara Feigel and Alexandra Harris (eds.), Modernism on Sea- Art and Culture at the British Seaside, Peter Lang, 2009, p.6.