Peterlee, England, 1954. Rows of uninspiring colliery houses stretched as far as the eye could see with winding roads that mimicked the rich coal seams below. It was a testament to the region's industrial past but offering little in the way of aesthetic joy. That's when the town council took a daring leap: They enlisted not an architect, but an abstract artist to reimagine the town’s landscape.
Born in 1908, Victor Pasmore's artistic journey mirrored the 20th century's seismic shifts. His brushstrokes, once figurative, had morphed into bold abstractions, gracing the walls of prestigious galleries like Tate Britain and MoMA. In 1955, Pasmore was appointed Consulting Director of Architectural Design of the Peterlee Development Corporation. Now, he would translate his dynamism onto the streets of the North East.
He wasn't tasked with just designing houses; instead, he was to breathe life into the entire community, to 'lift their eyes to a new horizon.' Pasmore wasn't bound by architectural conventions and, in a challenge to convention, his design was a deliberate rejection of the traditional garden city model with its emphasis on private back gardens and separation between living spaces. He saw this as isolating and impractical, and instead created a dense, communal environment where people could interact and socialise.
Pasmore saw Peterlee as a canvas, a chance to redefine the very essence of a town. He envisioned not just houses, but an integrated artwork, a symphony of concrete and sky. He began embracing an open grid, maximising space and light. His houses, limited to just two stories, huddled close, creating a vibrant urban density against the stark backdrop of the nearby North Sea. But the pièce de résistance was the Apollo Pavilion, an abstract concrete sculpture named after humanity's lunar ambitions.
The Pavilion wasn’t just a standalone sculpture, it was an integral part of the entire estate's design. Its abstract forms echoing the grid layout of the newly built houses, creating a cohesive visual language. Pasmore believed that art could uplift and inspire, and he saw the Pavilion as a beacon of possibility for the working-class community of Sunny Blunts.
Designed in 1963 and erected in 1968, the Apollo Pavilion name was more than just a reference to the space programme; it was a symbol of hope and progress for the region. The striking Pavilion was a playground for the community; designed to be interacted with, interlocking concrete forms creating nooks, crannies, and passageways, inviting exploration and interaction.
Early photos showcased this utopian harmony. Houses painted in pastel hues framed the geometric playground of the Pavilion, children's laughter sounding through the concrete forms. But time, sadly, can be a harsh critic of even the most ambitious visions. By the 1980s, neglect and vandalism took their toll, as mentioned here, on the Archive of Destruction website. The Pavilion, once a symbol of hope, became a forgotten relic with two of its original murals faded until they were almost indistinguishable.
But Sunny Blunts wouldn't let its heart fade away. The Apollo Pavilion Community Association and Friends of the Apollo Pavilion rose to fight for its restoration. Thanks to their tireless efforts - and some Heritage Lottery funding, the Pavilion was restored to its former, brutal glory in 2009. The work restored the south side stairway, reset the cobbles in the surrounding area and reinstated the two murals on the north and south walls.
Today, it stands tall, a Grade II* listed building, a testament to the power of art to transform not just structures, but communities. Its listed status puts the pavilion in the top 5% of all listed buildings, joining the likes of Middlesbrough's Transporter Bridge, the London Coliseum and Eastbourne Pier.
In celebration of the Sunny Blunts Estate, throughout February, Peterlee is hosting Sunny Blunts: Revisiting Victor Pasmore's Utopian Vison, curated by Deb Covell and Theresa Poulton. The impressive list of exhibiting artists, all based in the region, or with strong links to the area, have been asked to create work in response to 'Sunny Blunts'.
In his studio and in a playful manner, Pasmore designed the placement of the houses on the estate using wooden blocks. Artists were encouraged to consider Pasmore’s sense of inspirational play while creating works for the exhibition. The word ‘sunny’ reflects Pasmore’s vision of hope and optimism. Using an accent colour of yellow, artists were asked to adhere to Pasmore’s limited modernist colour palette of black, white, grey and yellow.
The exhibition is also the North East satellite event of the 7th edition International Biennale of Non-Objective Art which takes place in France and welcomes a cohort of linked locations in Europe, North America and Australia. A sense of continual history, informing and shaping current ideas is the main theme to the Biennale.
Seeing the artistic responses on display was a powerful reminder of Pasmore's vision for Sunny Blunts; more than just bricks and mortar, it was an attempt to create a community that was both functional and beautiful, a place where art and life were seamlessly intertwined.
Sunny Blunts remains a unique experiment, perhaps the world's only housing estate designed by an abstract artist. It's a reminder that urban planning shouldn't be just confined to blueprints and bricks. It can be a canvas for bold ideas, a space where art and architecture weave together to create not just shelter, but inspiration.
Sunny Blunts: Revisiting Victor Pasmore's Utopian Vision
27b The Chare, Castle Dene Shopping Centre (access the unit from The Broadclose, near Boots), Peterlee, SR8 1AJ
Open Feb 3rd / 6th / 8th / 10th from 12 - 3pm
Find more information about how to visit the Apollo Pavilion and Sunny Blunts Estate by clicking HERE.
Images of the estate taken with a Creative Commons licence can be found HERE