Streamline Moderne

Seaside Modernity
Clydeside modern

I spotted this poster while I was out and about in town yesterday, and googled Rothesay Pavilion as soon as I got home. What a place!

The exhibition, by the artist Ally Wallace (who’s recently been doing some work for my employer), precedes the Pavilion’s closure for two years of restoration work. Built in the late 1930s to a design by the Ayr architect James Carrick—only 24 when he won the competition—the Pavilion has retained much of its original fabric intact. It was constructed as a response to the first indications of the ‘decline of the British seaside town’ [1], which made themselves felt between the wars (somewhat earlier than the Wikipedia article thinks). The idea then was to make Rothesay a more appealing destination for Glaswegians going ‘doon the watter’, but when the decline really kicked in after the second world war the Pavilion made a reasonably successful transition to become a local civic centre—it’s still used today by a wide variety of local groups, unlike Carrick’s similar building on the mainland at Gourock, long since demolished: some original pictures here.

Carrick, says the Dictionary of Scottish Architects, was a ‘significant modernist’, and the Pavilion is his finest surviving work. It’s been on the Buildings at Risk register for a while, not so much for lack of routine maintenance—the building has been reasonably well looked after—as because the original materials are now showing their age.

The pavilion has been described as “International Style Modernism at its best with little if anything of its period to equal it in Scotland”. [2] The building sits at the junction of Argyle and Mackinlay Streets, looking over Rothesay Bay, and clearly visible to visitors arriving by ferry. It has an asymmetrical design, combining flat roofs, moderne curves and large expanses of metal-framed glazing with walls of buff-coloured synthetic stone ashlar over a concrete structure to produce a Scottish version of streamline moderne. The distinctive lettering on the façade is not original. The cantilevered first floor shelters the entrance and the bowed wing on the left housed a café, flooded with light from the curved curtain-wall glazing, with a covered sun terrace above. The square projection to the right houses the stairs. The roof promenade behind the upper balcony was covered with Lavacrete so that the surface would be dry immediately after rain – an important consideration given the Scottish weather.

Rothesay Pavilion front elevation
Googling “Lavacrete” is less rewarding

Local groups have been trying to raise £8 million to have it restored for over a decade, and a recent £3 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund means the budget for the project is now in place—it’s starting shortly. Presumably because of this, the building is the Twentieth Century Society’s building of the month for May.

Rothesay Pavilion foyer, Argyll and Bute council

Carrick’s career as an architect was interrupted by the second world war, and although he returned to a successful practice afterwards his later work doesn’t seem to have had quite the panache of the buildings he designed as a young man in the 1930s. There’s a portrait of him as a fly-fishing retiree [3]; only his keen gaze seems to mark a connection between the modern-as-tomorrow foyer of Rothesay Pavilion in the 1930s and the man who designed it as he was fifty years later.

James A Carrick

[1] I learned a bit about this from a rather good undergraduate dissertation about a different Firth of Clyde resort that I supervised this year: some references are here.

[2] By F A Walker, RIAS Illustrated Guide: North Clyde Estuary, p. 159

[3] This portrait isn’t attributed on either of the two websites I found it on. The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and the Dictionary of Scottish Architects: sort out your references.