The Towner Art Gallery – Eastbourne

Jefferson Collard describes how an icon is changing places and perceptions

Eastbourne has a new art gallery: The Towner is a white and black curvaceous cube, set in the delightful Devonshire Park, a block back from the seafront, and it was designed by award-winning Rick Mather Architects.
The Victorians made the best of the location when they laid out the town of Eastbourne. Set at the end of the South Downs, which act as natural protection against the south-westerly winds, the wide boulevards of the town splay out across a natural plain that leads into the famous Pevensey Levels, which the Romans thought it essential to protect with a magnificent castle. It was inevitable with such an enviable setting that the coastal town would become a destination for over four million visitors each year spending a massive £270 million to boost the local economy.
Devonshire Park was originally laid out by the 7th Duke of Devonshire in the early 1870s as the town’s new cricket pitch. It quickly became established as the town’s cultural and entertainment playground with Victorian delights designed by the Duke’s architect, Henry Currey, namely The Winter Garden (1875-6) and The Devonshire Park Theatre (1884). These have been added to with Bryan and Norman Westwood & Partners’ Congress Theatre, in 1963, and the Lawn Tennis Associations Stand of 1995. Across the road is the Eastbourne Heritage Centre (1886), in which Currey may also have had a hand. Four of the buildings are such good examples of their periods that they are protected with listed status. The Towner is the latest addition in the continuing tradition of adding cultural icons to the setting of Devonshire Park.

The Site

When the decision was taken that The Towner’s superb art collection needed an modern state-of-the-art building, the obvious choice was to locate it in the town’s cultural quarter. The original building was a wonderful eighteenth century former Manor House, set in extensive grounds in the Old Town next to the Parish Church. But the building was not suitable for such a prized and valuable collection, or the Towner’s ambitious temporary visual art exhibitions and award-winning learning and outreach programmes, so it was sold by the Council for residential development.
The new site was to be Devonshire Park, a pebble’s throw from the town centre and the seafront. The now rare prospect of building a new civic centre was seen by Eastbourne Borough Council as an opportunity to solve other issues at the same time. This led to a proposed site squeezed between the Congress Theatre and Winter Garden, which already contained a single-storey restaurant and kitchen. The new building could potentially enable the existing theatre kitchen to be upgraded and link the two large spaces in the adjoining buildings to become a multi-purpose volume. But too much was expected of this constrained position and of one building.
Rick Mather Architects, who won the design competition beating eighty entries, selected an existing car park on the west side of The Congress Theatre as their site; a deceptively tiny area of 770m2. It was courageous of the Council to accept an alternative site, but the strength of Rick Mather’s concept made it an overwhelming favourite. This significant decision allowed the outstanding design that we can see today. With planning consent given in 2004 and funding secured, the project began on site in 2006 and opened in April 2009.

The Funding

There can be little dispute about the quality of Eastbourne’s existing art collection, containing the world’s most exceptional collection of Eric Ravilious’ work, who was a local teacher and lived in the town. The new art gallery, which would retain and extend its regional/ national status, attracted the attention of major funders. With a total build cost of £8.5 million, it was funded by grants from the Arts Council England’s Capital Programme 2, the Heritage Lottery Fund, South East England Development Agency and Eastbourne Borough Council in equal proportions.
The Towner also became one of five recipients across the UK of £1m from Art Fund International to purchase major examples of international contemporary art for its collection, thereby cementing its status as the best contemporary art museum for the region. It also receives funding towards its running costs from Arts Council England South East as one of the region’s major visual art organisations.

The Building

Light is the enemy of art, and yet viewers want an inviting space in which to enjoy their visit. Rick Mather Architects have solved this with a clever layout of the rooms in this three-story building. This is a building of two halves separated by a glazed circulation space, giving views over Devonshire Park to the north and glimpses of the seafront to the south. The eastern half contains two principal art spaces on top of each other on the first and second floors, behind a stark zinc clad façade. Adjoining the Congress Theatre, the new art gallery has connections at each level to knit the buildings together.
The western half houses the supporting rooms that required windows - work spaces, lecture rooms and café. The café has a west-facing sun terrace looking out over the roof tops to the South Downs - the next National Park. The western side of the building responds to its site with a curvilinear wave of sheer vertical chalk white render, reminiscent of its bigger brother the cliff face at Beachy Head, and which appears so frequently in much of the art that it accommodates. The Council planners were careful to insist on a respectful relationship with its grade II* listed neighbour, so that the façade of the Congress Theatre could still be read in the streetscape with its defining piloti. Key sight lines were continued to the new art gallery, uniting two very different buildings; one an older neighbour, the other overtly contemporary and of our time. As The Council has always been keen to bring art to all, its innovative Towner on The Town project bringing the visual arts to the less advantaged won the Authority Beacon Status in Culture and Sport for Hard to Reach Groups in 2006.

The Image

Some who have heard of Eastbourne, yet never visited, have an image of a place with a significant older population, stuck in the past and awash with facilities for the elderly. However successive surveys of visitors have shown that they are impressed with the quality of the seafront and the town’s open spaces and broad streets. This is a legacy of the 7th Duke of Devonshire’s vision for a planned town that still continues today. The Duke did not allow the over-commercialisation of the seafront, so it retains its promenading elegance but with refined refreshment stops.
The large number of late nineteenth century villas have been attracting professional families who see bargain properties compared to expensive and neighbouring Brighton & Hove. The major increases in the town’s population since 2001 have been the 16 to 29 year olds and the 45 to 64 year old age groups. Both groups showing increases more than twice the average for the town, and over six times the equivalent percentage increase of those of pensionable age, showing that the town’s population is changing.
As the traditional coach tour market wanes, so the town is repositioning itself to capture the rise of the year-round higher quality short break holiday. Becoming immersed in local culture is popular with these short break visitors and The Towner is easily able to capitalise upon that trend, revealing a new and different story about where Eastbourne is heading. With 7,500 bed spaces - the second largest number in the southeast outside London - the town can accommodate a significant influx of people.

The Lessons

1 An architectural competition is more likely to turn a good building into a great building. There is no doubt that having a quality team like Rick Mather Architects has produced a magnificent and long term iconic addition to the town’s outstanding buildings - a listed building of the future.

2 Early consultation with the key players and opinion formers is essential. Here English Heritage, the Twentieth Century Society, Theatres Trust as well as over forty local community groups including the Eastbourne Society, were involved in developing the brief for the site. The result was that when the planning application was submitted, the proposals received overwhelming support.

3 A building of quality takes time to design and build, and sufficient time must be allowed for the design of a building to gestate and find good solutions. Time allows the call for understandable changes to be assimilated into the building while preserving the design concept. When considered properly, such changes do not dilute the original concept, but help to embrace those who have suggested the improvements.

Jefferson Collard, Development Planning Manager, Eastbourne Borough Council