Friday, February 24, 2017

Back to the Future

The Congress Theatre in Eastbourne, the largest on the south coast with a 1700-seat capacity, closed its doors last month whilst it undergoes an interior renovation and the construction of an adjacent welcome building that will house the box office and bar. Due to be completed in late 2018, the refurbishment follows the recent £2 million 5-year overhaul of the exterior. Opened in 1963, this Grade II* listed building has reached a point in its life where it clearly needs some love and attention.

The architects of the building were brothers Bryan and Norman Westwood. Up until then, their Surrey practice had largely been designing laboratories for research institutions and shops, most significantly for long-term client Austin Reed. Such was their expertise in retail design that they produced the definitive text, The Modern Shop, in 1952. After this, they were involved in a wider range of projects that saw them design Liverpool University’s arts precinct, housing for the Greater London Council and the Congress Theatre. It was the Eastbourne theatre that Norman Westwood was said to be most proud of.

Designed in 1958, the Congress was described by the late British-based American architect Rick Mather as having a “Festival-Hall-meets-East-Berlin interior and a dour exterior.” However, it reflected the prevailing trend of the age and its glass, metal and concrete frame frontage are a perfect example of post-war Modernist architecture, whilst its rear elevation owes much to the Brutalist school. Inside, its three-level foyer and the moulded balcony fronts and concealed lighting of the auditorium do, as Mather said, create a Soviet-style atmosphere. Indeed, the last time I was there was to witness the cultural orthodoxy of Reeves and Mortimer.

I first went to the Congress when I was on holiday with my mum and dad at Pevensey Bay. The building would have only been seven or eight years-old then and I do remember it being an exciting and impressive sight for a child of roughly the same age: towering above me on a warm summer’s night, light shining out from its pellucid front, it looked like the future. When I moved to East Sussex permanently a dozen years ago, time had dimmed that memory and the Congress looked as though it was something from the distant past. Next year, hopefully, the future will be back.

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