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Another 'Grand Tour' of the Potteries
- David Proudlove & Steve Birks -

buildings in Burslem

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No 12 -  Burslem 
Ceramica Pavilion

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'The Shock of the New' - part 2

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein”

– Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012)








Last month saw the first anniversary of the commencement of the marketing of one the Potteries’ most recognisable landmarks, and the scene of one of the city’s most controversial projects of recent times. The Grade II* Listed Old Burslem Town Hall on Market Place in the Mother Town is once more looking for a new role following the demise of the infamous Millennium Project, Ceramica.

Ceramica closed its doors for the last time in March 2011 after the City Council withdrew funding in the wake of savage Government cuts, with some exhibits transferred to other locations in the city, and the Ceramica museum itself placed into liquidation, with Begbies Traynor handling matters.

Ceramica was one of 222 projects established throughout the country by the Millennium Commission as part of the nation’s celebrations to mark the year 2000, and was designed to be a unique celebration of the ceramics industry in the Potteries. The Ceramica exhibitions and displays were housed in the Old Town Hall, and the project opened its doors in 2003 following extensive renovation works.

The project stirred great debate locally due to its perceived waste of public money. From an economic perspective, the project was a disaster: Ceramica was expected to attract 100,000 visitors a year (whoever wrote the Business Plan ought to be sectioned), but it limped along, with just 10,000 people enjoying the Ceramica experience, with the City Council stumping up £150,000 of taxpayers’ cash to support day-to-day running.

Though there are many reasons for the demise of Ceramica – the decline of the ‘traditional’ High Street and town centre; unrealistic expectations in terms of visitor numbers; the closure of Royal Doulton on Nile Street – the final nail in the coffin was the ushering in of the Era of Austerity, which led to the City Council withdrawing its support.

The symbol of Ceramica is the striking new pavilion – which housed the retail elements of the attraction – that sits alongside the Old Town Hall, a building which aroused much anger and debate in the Mother Town, with many locals believing the building failed to respect the Old Town Hall and Burslem’s built heritage. Many people also believed that the new pavilion was Ceramica, not realising or appreciating that the main attraction was located in the Old Town Hall.


Ceramica Pavilion

Ceramica Pavilion 
© The Sentinel


Ceramica was designed and delivered by Lathams of Derby, who specialise in the conservation of historic buildings, as well as delivering exciting modern design. They carefully re-planned and refurbished the Old Town Hall to accommodate the exhibits and educational elements, and built the new modern pavilion that fronts Wedgwood Place.

According to Lathams, their design for the pavilion was heavily influenced by the Russian artist Malevic, with the stark, modernist steel and glass structure contrasting greatly with the classicism of the Old Town Hall. The angled copper roof is supported by a slender needle which is centred on the foundations of a bottle kiln on Josiah Wedgwood’s original potworks. 

Although the design of the new building could best be described as Marmite Architecture – some love it, some hate it – it fits perfectly with the Mother Town’s eclectic collection of architectural styles. Me? So as not to enrage Boslemites, I’m sitting firmly on the fence.

It is a great pity that many people’s views on Ceramica are clouded by their views on modernist design. The attraction was absolutely superb, featuring interactive displays and videos, and exhibits from manufacturers such as Wade Ceramics, Dudson, Moorland Pottery, Burgess Dorling and Leigh, and Moorcroft. 

As Bob Young of Begbies Traynor put it: 

“the demise of Ceramica is a terrible pity. Many people, particularly children, greatly enjoyed the exhibition and interactive products”.

Ceramica in the Evening

Ceramica in the Evening 
© the Business Desk


Oscar Niemeyer would’ve liked Ceramica. Niemeyer was a giant of the Modernist movement, and shaped the Über-modernist Brazilian capital city Brasilia. He is now 104 years old, but he would recognise and appreciate the principle and intention behind Lathams’ modernist design for the Ceramica pavilion, though I’m sure he would prefer certain aspects of the Old Town Hall.

* * *

And so what is the future for Ceramica? As mentioned previously, some exhibits have been relocated to other locations, but almost two years after the attraction closed its doors for the last time, the Old Town Hall and the new pavilion stand empty and silent, despite being marketed as development opportunities for just over twelve months, and occupying the most prominent location in the Mother Town.

It is particularly galling to see the Old Town Hall empty once more. Ceramica was billed as a sustainable solution to the years old conundrum of what to do with one of the city’s most important and attractive civic buildings.

However, the Business Plan was fatally flawed, bringing us back to square one, and coupled with the City Council’s apparently bezerk approach to asset management, puts an important part of the Mother Town’s built heritage at risk. 

To prove the point, the City Council operates a local service centre in each of the Six Towns, and Burslem’s has been tucked away in a small nondescript unit on Brickhouse Street next to the entrance to the long abandoned Indoor Market, whilst the town’s most important public building stares into the abyss. 

The City Council’s close neighbour Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council struggled with a similar problem with the historic Guildhall, but instead of flailing around and clutching at straws, it took the bull by the horns and renovated it, and reopened it as a ‘customer contact centre’. 

They say the best use for a historic building is its original intended use: the Old Town Hall was built to be a public building; why can’t it become a public building once more?

Main Entrance to Ceramica, the Old Town Hall

Main Entrance to Ceramica, the Old Town Hall

photo: David Stowell - Nov 2006



As has been laboured on other Burslem stops of Another Grand Tour, the Mother Town is – yet again – being touted as a tourist destination. It could be, but there needs to be a holistic and realistic strategy to make this happen, a strategy that considers all aspects of the town’s life, from potential visitor attractions (could the Old Town Hall be home to a small niche community cinema for example? How are the links with Arnold Bennett exploited?), the built heritage and local environment, transport needs, and the evening economy, and how this is balanced with the needs of local residents and the town’s role as a local service centre. 

Such a strategy could provide Burslem with a clearly defined and sustainable role; the current piecemeal approach will not.

These are big questions that do not have simple and straight forward answers, but until they are tackled, Burslem and the Old Town Hall will remain in limbo.


Dave Proudlove - December 2012




next: Burslem - The old Post Office
previous: Burslem - Royal Doulton, Nile Street
contents: index of buildings in Burslem




Related Pages

Ceramica - a Millennium Commission

Burslem Town Hall