Saturday, December 15, 2012

Don't mock Tudor

Christmas books: 4

The fourth of my Christmas handful of books actually came out last year, but it struck me as so relevant to the concerns of the English Buildings blog that it easily earned its place here. It is about what for many is the quintessential English building style: Tudoresque...

Andrew Ballantyne and Andrew Law, Tudoresque: In Pursuit of the Ideal Home
Published by Reaktion

Tudoresque – shorthand for the architectural style typified by black and white walls and prominent gables – is something of a national obsession in Britain, and a symbol of our culture. But its modern incarnation, mock Tudor, is decried for the fakery of stuck-on beams and imitation leaded lights. So why are we so preoccupied by it – whether we're in love with it or, like many design professionals and architects, scornful of its suburban manifestations? This is among the questions that Andrew Balantyne and Andrew Law (professors respectively of architecture and town planning) seek to answer in this lively book. They trace the style's 16th-century roots, its various reincarnations – during the vague for the "Picturesque" in around 1800, as a revivalist style (influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement) in the late-19th century, and as mock-Tudor suburban architecture in the 1920s and later.

Fascinatingly, Ballantyne and Law also trace the style's meanings for its revivers – those values that it has seemed to embody and that have been attractive to lovers of Tudoresque down the ages. It turns out that these meanings are far from simple. On the one hand, there is the Tudor style as a symbol of paternalistic old values: of manor houses, aristocrats who look after their patch and their servants, benevolent industrialists housing their workers. This is one-nation Tudorism, if you like, with a lavish portion of the roast beef of old England. From another point of view, it's the style of self-reliance,  of the lower middle class making ends meet, of squatters putting up a timber-framed house on common ground overnight and claiming the right to live there, of the Elizabethan ideal of a cottage with four acres of land, of suburban owner-occupiers.

Ballantyne and Law tease out these meanings carefully, showing that if such subtexts are no longer directly relevant (few people build and squat nowadays) they are still there somewhere in our unconscious, and they contribute the way in which we see things. If Tudoresque cottages appealed to the creators of the Picturesque landscapes of the 18th and 19th centuries, symbolizing patriotism, they also embody values of tradition and Britishness to many dwellers in modern half-timbered homes.  The authors also look at the vogue for Tudoresque in other countries, where it is seen in part as a symbol of Britishness and British values, whether in the swanky abodes of early-20th century US industrialists or in smaller Manhattan apartment blocks, which occasionally resemble Tudor skyscrapers.

Tudoresque pulls all these threads together well. It encompasses real timber-framed buildings and faux-Tudor houses with boards nailed on to brick walls, and shows that what they have in common is more than skin-deep. It made me think more deeply about why people built these houses the way they did, about the gulf that sometimes opens up between architects and home-owners, and about what makes Britain British.

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