This is the sixth and final instalment in my very brief history of architecture in England, seen through the lens of the examples posted on this blog. It covers the period between the end of World War I and the mid-1950s and, as before, it’s a partial history, reflecting the diversity of this period without including examples of every style and movement. As well as producing a variety of styles and movements, the 20th century was also a time when, as technology developed and ways of life changed radically, a host of new building types evolved. Three groups of examples are power stations, the buildings created to house and maintain motor vehicles, and structures to do with aircraft. There are many more.
For now, I’ve chosen a 1955 cut-off point. There’s plenty of information and opinion about more recent architecture on the web and I feel more comfortable looking at and commenting on architecture from before this date.
Revival and nostalgia
After World War I, architects continued to build in as diverse a variety of styles as their Victorian predecessors. And some of these styles were as backward-looking as those of the Victorian era, although the backward glances could be in different directions. There was a nostalgia for look of Tudor architecture, for example, with house-builders adding non-structural beams to make suburban houses appear timber framed, while builders of civic buildings and Post Offices sometimes went for a solid and authoritative stone Tudor-revival style. There were also many buildings in the neo-Georgian mode: from commodious manor houses to the smallest family home, sash windows, fanlights, and other Georgian features appeared in profusion. Edwin Lutyens was an architect who could exploit the effectiveness of Georgian (and earlier) design, as shown by a manor house he made over before the war and restored after a fire in the interwar period.
There was also, in many quarters, a huge respect for the achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement. As well as true Arts and Crafts buildings, there were also many built with the trappings of traditional building – fake Tudor beams or plunging Voyseyesque gables, for example. Sometimes such features were combined with planning influenced by the garden city movement – curving, tree-lined streets – to produce districts that were either airily rural or cloying suburban, according to one;s viewpoint. This kind of building continued to be celebrated well into the 1930s and beyond, as a some tiled panels form a London shop front (photograph above) reveal.
Homely Arts and Crafts did not seem the right approach when a more monumental building was called for, and the 20th century was nothing architectural if not an era of big buildings. Amongst the ways in which architects supplied the need for monumentality, one solution was a kind of free style, made up of a mixture of Gothic elements and motifs culled from Art Nouveau and other more recent styles. East London’s extraordinary seamen’s mission is an example, getting its effect from careful but eclectic handling of details.
Also carefully detailed, but also superbly massed, are the great power stations of the 20th century, especially the London ones built of brick. Bankside has found its new role as Tate Modern. Battersea Power Station (photograph above) awaits the decision of planners and developers. Battersea’s vast turbine hall and towering chimneys are created using millions of bricks. The effect, noble in its ruin, is still dramatic.
Expressionism and eccentricity
A more fluid visual approach comes via expressionism, a movement known more on the European mainland than in England. An example, which combines the unpredictable flowing lines of expressionism with those of Art Nouveau, is London’s Rudolf Steiner building (photograph above), all odd window shapes and unexpected curves. The 20th-century admitted such oddities, and others of a more rectilinear kind, such as Lutyens’ dazzling Page Street flats in London, a chequerboard of brick and stucco.
Modernism, pure but not simple
But for many architects and designers, the drum to follow in the 1920s and 1930s was that of modernism, the functional, stripped-down, largely unornamented architecture pioneered by German luminaries such as Peter Behrens – and by British forebears such as the little known Liverpool architect Peter Ellis, who was designing forward-looking steel and glass structures in the 1860s. By the 1920s, with the Bauhaus in full swing in Weimar (and later in Dessau), architects knew where to look.
The kind of modernist architecture that is seen by many as the most “pure”, the most faithful to the ideas of the great European modernists, is defined by a total lack of “applied ornament”, by an avoidance of symmetry for its own sake (you can balance the arrangement of your facades without making them symmetrical), and by a kind of design that expresses the volume within the building rather than its mass. In addition, such buildings are often said to adhere to the idea that form follows function – the architect began with what the building was meant to be and do, and let this dictate its outer appearance. Aesthetically, such buildings are associated with white walls, flat roofs, large windows, balconies, and open, free-flowing interiors. Technically, they typically use materials thought of as modern (though often rather older than they seem) such as concrete, steel, and plate glass. Socially, such buildings are linked with the idea that a bright, honest architecture that gives its users access to fresh air and sunshine is better for us than poky Victorian architecture, and might even make us into better people.
In practice and in England, though, things were rather different. Such modernist buildings were as easily recognized by certain typical features – plain white walls, roof gardens, strip windows, and so on – as by these principles. There is a group of English buildings, including for example the flats at Highpoint I, Highgate, London, and the Lawn Road flats in Hampstead, also in London, that exemplify this white, unadorned modernism, and which are often cited as the “stars” of the English modernism of the 1930s. But there were also lesser lights, chrome and glass shop fronts (image above) and smaller houses that showed what English designers could do in the modernist mode.
From modern to moderne
There is another group of buildings that take this way of building in a slightly different but related direction. Although ornament is still minimal, there’s more of a striving for decorative effect, both by means of the form of the buildings (such as rounded corners or exaggerated overhanging roofs) and through fittings (such as circular windows and windows of other unusual shapes, or the use of railings like those fitted on ships). This produced a streamlined form of domestic architecture sometimes called moderne. It can be found in office blocks with round towers and simple clock faces, in blocks of flats with bulbous balconies, in small houses that seem to want to look like ocean liners. It also influenced the design of such memorable buildings as Charles Holden’s Piccadilly Line underground stations (photograph above), which combine modernist functionality with a visual flair that is more than functional.
At the same time there developed a similar sort of architecture that goes for still more dramatic effects and is not afraid of the jazziest forms of ornament – bright colours (influenced in part by those used in abstract painting), Egyptian motifs, abstract bits of relief sculpture. This is the cinematic architecture of Art Deco cinemas, factories, and the like. It’s much more about visual effects, and is a far cry from the white Puritanism of “pure” modernism. Art Deco was a style that could be applied to the design of anything – chairs, radio cabinets, jewellery – but in architecture it proved successful where display was at a premium: not just in cinemas, but for shop fronts, cafés, garages, and factory buildings when factory owners wanted to make a loud visual statement. It became the signature style for factory buildings on the approach roads to London and is memorably seen in structures such as West London’s Hoover Building, Curry’s Factory, and the more restrained but still outstanding Coty Factory. Most remarkable of all is the former Carreras Black Cat tobacco factory (photograph above) near London’s Mornington Crescent – black cats, “Egyptian” lettering, lotus columns, and all.
As Art Deco was above all a style of decoration, architectural ornament took interesting turns under its influence. There are still many tiled shop fronts surviving in the Deco style. Cinema sculpture is rare, but arresting and often provocatively glamorous. Art Deco sculpture is not all cinematic glamour, however. Building workers and their jobs are represented in a memorable set of reliefs carved by Joseph Cribb on a former building society premises in Brighton. Other kinds of decorative panel lift sometimes banal buildings to new heights. After World War II the style lingered on and connoisseurs of traditional cafés are sometimes rewarded with a surviving 1940s Art Deco interior or façade.
The three kinds of modernism of the 1920s and 1930s – “high” or Bauhaus modernism, moderne, Art Deco – are not distinct styles. They blur at the boundaries and represent something more like a spectrum that a set of distinct categories. But they do cover a wide range, from near minimalism at one end to cinematic extravagance at the other, showing the variety of ways in which architects created new approaches to their art in the early-20th century.
After World War II – even indeed before hostilities ended – architects and planners theorized endlessly about how war-damaged Britain might be rebuilt. They answers they came up with were varied, but the strongest voices favoured turning the destruction into an opportunity to rebuild in a manner fitting for the second half of the 20th century. For most, this meant a version of modernism, but with a different twist.
The difference is best summed up by the Festival of Britain of 1951, an even designed to cheer up the country and to inspire people. The Festival promoted a modern architecture that was more decorative, more light-hearted than pre-war modernism. A lot of the features of earlier modernism were there – strip windows, the use of “modern” materials, and so on. But all this was tempered by decoration, the use of pastel colours, interesting forms, and graphics that reflected these ideas. It was all meant to lighten Britain up, as people still coped with the fag-end of rationing, and tried to convinced themselves, pace Noël Coward, that the bad times were not just around the corner.
The exhibition sites, from the famous South Bank with its Festival Hall to the less well know architecture exhibition at Chrisp Street, gave people many opportunities to sample this new style. Imitators, from London (photograph above) to Hereford, picked it up and ran with it. They felt, perhaps, that what they were producing was modernism with a human face. At the same time, though, there were others who felt, looking back towards the more focussed functionalism of the 1920s and 1930s, that it wasn’t rigorous enough.
Thoughts such as these led to the often more hard-edged, purposeful, but sometimes dour modernism of the 1960s and later. This phase of British architecture could, at its best, produce striking, highly sculptural structures that answered all kinds of social and practical needs, in every field from education to transport. The extraordinary, if controversial, bus station at Preston is an example. British architecture of the 1960s, though generally thoroughly modernist, did also sometimes admit the eloquence of decoration. Historians, critics, and amenity societies are now increasingly pointing out murals and tiles from the period that are often of high artistic quality. Dorothy Annan's tile panels for the old telephone exchange in London's Farringdon Street, now preserved and relocated in the Barbican complex, are a case in point. But this period of English building, for the most part and for now at least, is beyond the scope of this blog.