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Part One: British architecture before the Great War

Alan Powers’ two-part historical essay reveals World War One’s repercussion on the maturation of Modernism and encourages us to re-evaluate, a century later, both the Modernist canon and its impact on British architecture

Owing to the ominous events of August, the year 1914 remains a significant cut-off point in the history of architecture. No other war has been synchronised with a major stylistic change in the way that the First World War is seen as the transformational passage for the emergence of Modernism from its embryonic to mature condition. Britain played relatively little part in this, so that emotions between sorrow and anger have haunted the apparently infertile span of time between 1900 and 1930.

The problem manifested itself well before 1914, which is therefore a strangely unimportant date in many ways, although it marked a pause in construction activity. Comparing England with Germany, the architect and teacher WR Lethaby declared in 1915, ‘just as our English free building arrived, or at least “very nearly did”, there came a timid reaction and the re-emergence of the catalogued “styles”.’1 Embittered and workless in 1928, Charles Rennie Mackintosh singled out the ‘pompous bounder’ Charles Reilly, advocate of ‘Monumental Classicism’ in the years before 1914, as the enemy responsible for decline. In 1942, Nikolaus Pevsner’s article ‘Nine Swallows, No Summer’ in the Architectural Review identified a small crop of buildings between 1901 and 1912 that corresponded to the progressive or ‘adventurous’ trend of the American and European ‘Pioneers’ about whom he published his famous book in 1936.2 These were mostly factory buildings and the visually simplified late products of the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as Lethaby’s offices in Birmingham or the flat roofed houses of Edgar Wood. By contrast, Pevsner illustrated the Morning Post building by Mewès and Davis, closing the western arm of Aldwych in 1908, as an example of mainstream design in this period, regretting that the steel frame was ‘hidden behind sumptuous masonry and decoration’.

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Mewès and Davis’s Morning Post building on the Aldwych in London

When Edwardian architecture came back into fashion in the 1970s, and in succession to the Victorian revival in the 1960s acting in part as a critique of Modernism, the historical coverage was greatly extended through books such as Robert Macleod’s survey of architectural ideas from 1835 to 1914, Style and Society, 1971, and Alastair Service’s collection of old AR pieces, alongside new scholarship, Edwardian Architecture and its Origins, 1975. Yet these and most other survey texts have persisted with an essentially Modern Movement assumption that there ought to have been a more discernible progressive style movement in Britain during the first years of the new century.

The result of this assumption has been to leave out a great deal of work for which intrinsic quality can be claimed. Edwin Lutyens was one figure who failed to conform to the progressive agenda, and by an accident of fate, his work was easily accessible in the memorial volumes by ASG Butler and Christopher Hussey published in 1950. Lutyens was unquestionably an outstanding designer, but the result of this, combined with the relative scarcity of information on his rivals available at an early date, has meant that the alternative to the progressive interpretation has largely been shaped according to Lutyens’ themes of nostalgic domesticity allied to Imperial grandeur, unified by a particular approach to abstract form, the aspect that, when stripped of ornament and association, enabled him to produce such a pitch-perfect national memorial as the Cenotaph in Whitehall. The dialectic between Pevsner’s Pioneers and Hussey’s last humanist was a convenient one that appeared to span the range of the period, but it omits so many alternative individuals and discourses in a rich and complex time. What, then, is still hidden in the gap between these two interpretations?

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Morning Post building under construction, 1907: its ‘sumptuous masonry’ was not to Pevsner’s liking

Writing in 1989, John Summerson voiced a view common even among those who accepted without lament the fact of Modernism’s late development in Britain, that the year 1908 marked ‘the highest point, after which the energy, damped by economic setback, seemed to have spent itself’.3 The final five or six years before the First World War have proved particularly hard to project in a positive light, for to escape from the dominance of the Modernist narrative requires mental flexibility. This was a time of modernity in Britain, with rapid technological and social progress, exemplified by the legislation of the Asquith government and by the Suffrage movement, and yet the physical setting envisaged by architects during these years did not reflect progress in the way we have been taught to expect.

It is important to understand that the quality that comes across as coolness or even frigidity from this period was not an accident of the economic cycle, as Summerson suggested, but was more a conscious cycle of taste. Summerson supported his contention of a change in 1908 by reference to the London County Hall competition of the previous year, of which he wrote that it ‘fell rather flat and people began to say that such things were done better in France’.4 This is a simplification of a more complex reality. French architecture’s apparent stability of purpose, coupled to a generosity of state patronage of both buildings and education, was certainly favourably contrasted by many with the low status of ‘official’ architecture in Britain. CH Reilly and his friends had hoped that County Hall might mark a change away from Baroque to a purer classicism, and regretted the continuation of a picturesque attitude to classicism in the design by Ralph Knott selected by the assessors, Richard Norman Shaw and Aston Webb. They even formed a ‘Classical Society’ to promote a change of attitude, and although this petered out, the larger issue of discipline and reform in design, with a focus on urban decorum, efficient planning and a discreet incorporation of modern technology, became the keynotes for the early years of George V’s reign, disseminated through the magazines, above all the Builders’ Journal, later renamed as the Architects’ Journal, where Reilly became a consultant editor in 1913, but also through more mainstream media.

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Beresford Pite’s 1906 Euston Square building, now the Royal College of General Practitioners

Some of the work that emerged from this tendency, such as the ‘Neo-Grec’ apartment blocks of  Frank T Verity in Marylebone, is skilful but has never generated affection. On the other hand, some architects, such as Beresford Pite with his 1906 building at the corner of Euston Square, recently refurbished as the Royal College of General Practitioners, showed how classicism was still a vital creative medium, blending primitive Greek with Michelangelo. In a different mood, Eustace Frere’s General Medical Council building in Hallam Street of 1913-15 discarded pomposity in favour of graceful lyricism.

It is time to scrutinise our use of the Modernist canon and try to understand what the architects of the time were really trying to do’

In addition to these prestige projects, Adshead and Ramsey’s small-scale urban development for the Duchy of Cornwall in Kennington, 1913, in an updated late Georgian style, was a deliberate antithesis to the Garden City rusticity of the time. Ian Nairn wrote of Courtenay Square: ‘apparently fragile compared with the robust streets around, yet tough and compact’.5 It was not just the architectural style but the layout that still make this seem a workable model today.

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Albert Richardson’s Manchester Opera House of 1912 Below: a delirious staircase in John Burnet’s 1914 extension for the British Museum

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Temple Moore’s additions to All Saints in Ecclesall, 1907

Albert Richardson, one of the youngest in the new movement for a cooler urbane and international classicism, showed how the crudity of Edwardian Baroque could be refined by Schinkel, about whom he published articles in the AR in 1912, and CR Cockerell, whose sophisticated blend of Greek and Roman he imitated in the Opera House at Manchester. To our eyes, it seems odd that although willing to admire Schinkel, the Edwardians were almost uniformly derogatory about modern German architecture, while often uncritical in their admiration for France. Richardson’s book Monumental Classic Architecture, 1914, suggested a new interpretation of history in which the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts were a diversion from a steady development and adaptation of antique sources. In the 1920s Richardson was struck by the logic of Modernist theory and received praise for at least one project, Leith House, Gresham Street, from Lethaby himself. The man who later became a figure of reaction was, in his time, a progressive. Richardson can be viewed in relation to E Vincent Harris, similarly long-lived and prolific, although almost completely mute in comparison with the loquacious Richardson. Like them or not, they were dominant figures who, far from being swept aside by change, were still building the thoughts of 1912 in the Britain of the early 1960s.

Against Richardson’s confident simplification of the line of history and the process of synthesising it for design and pedagogy, we can set the subtle and contrarian arguments of HS Goodhart-Rendel, whose lecture transcripts, with Richardson’s, dominated the pages of the weekly architectural journals between the wars. Both noted as reactionaries, they were nonetheless very different in their views. Goodhart-Rendel’s book English Architecture Since the Regency, 1953, turns our assumptions about the years before 1914 upside down. His lessons were never about style as such, but about the proper ways in which it could be used. He had no tolerance for Voysey or for the Simple Life, and considered Lutyens clever but architecturally unprincipled − Goodhart-Rendel’s recasting of the normally accepted canon reveals a parallel architectural universe, offering at least a partial answer to the question about what really happened in the supposedly barren years between 1908 and 1930.

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A delirious staircase in John Burnet’s 1914 extension for the British Museum

The architecture of the 1880s and ’90s, in reacting against the limitations of the Gothic Revival, had given way to a sentimental picturesqueness. From the generation before his own, Goodhart-Rendel selected two exemplary figures whose stars remain dim a hundred years later: John Burnet and Temple Lushington Moore. Born in 1857 and 1856 respectively, with careers culminating in 1914, these two were, on the face of it, opposites. Burnet was trained in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts and came from Glasgow to London in 1905 when his design for the northern extension of the British Museum was chosen by an RIBA expert panel. Opened in May 1914, Burnet’s severe Greek Ionic colonnade was a reproof to the eye-catching superstructures, crowded wall surfaces and uncoordinated plans still liable to win competitions. Inside the building, Burnet’s central staircase breaks the rules and invigorates the Classical style well beyond even Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, designed during the same years. Burnet observed Classical decorum on the outside, in line with the early 20th-century campaign to coordinate the composition of street frontages. Inside the building is another matter, with an almost delirious staircase that invents new Classical orders and mixes them within a complex stairwell space with changing vistas as one ascends.

Burnet set up an office in London and, before the Museum reached its slow completion, had contributed two contrasting buildings to the LCC’s new street of Aldwych and Kingsway. His Kodak Offices and Warehouse, 1910-11, was one of Pevsner’s ‘Nine Swallows’ of proto Modernism, on account of its relative lack of ornament, although this was no more than an appropriate treatment for a semi-industrial building. The nearby General Buildings in Aldwych, 1909-11, now occupied by the LSE, with its self-conscious play of form and use of detail for its own sake, was a building that could never have made it onto Pevsner’s list, and although we are perhaps more tolerant of the latter, it remains hard to accept them on equal terms.

Temple Moore was a less conspicuous figure who, although based in London, built mostly in country towns and villages. By his time, Gothic Revival was seen as a marginal style suitable only for church building, although this still represented a substantial section of the architectural profession. In lectures and articles in the 1920s, Goodhart-Rendel used Burnet and Temple Moore to point out the same simple lesson about style − that ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’.

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Proposed design for Dominion House on the Strand by Lethaby’s associate Randall Wells, 1913

In the case of Moore, he argued in 1928 against a concept of Modernism that was only beginning to emerge in England, one that used the existence of low-quality adaptations of the past to justify abandoning known styles entirely, rather than learning from the high-quality examples that any stylistic language was potentially a medium for artistic expression, unchanging in validity if understood and used well. The Gothic Revival was severely out of fashion, but as Goodhart-Rendel wrote, ‘It is very foolish to miss − because of a superficial distaste − the experience and pleasure that a great work of art can give … Style is the least important of the unimportant elements of architecture.’6

This encapsulates the divergence of the early 20th century not only in Britain but elsewhere. Goodhart-Rendel, writing these pieces in the 1920s, appears to have had little or no influence on the future, but his proposition still offers a corrective to the view about the necessary direction of progress that Pevsner did so much to promote. The result has been to cut through a once organically connected tissue of architectural culture and create the historiographical wasteland around 1914. The non-swallows (or geese) will not turn into swans simply by reversing the received view, but after a hundred years or more, it is surely time to scrutinise our use of the Modernist canon and its implied value system and try to understand what the architects of the time were really trying to do, and from that to evaluate it afresh.

References

1 WR Lethaby, ‘Modern German Architecture and What We May Learn From It’, in Form in Civilisation, Oxford University Press, 1922, p100.
2 Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘Nine Swallows, No Summer’, Architectural Review, vol 91, May 1942, pp109-14.
3 John Summerson, ‘Architecture’, in Boris Ford (ed), The Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain, vol 8, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
4 Summerson, op cit.
5 Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London, Penguin, 1968, p116.
6 HS Goodhart-Rendel, ‘The Work of Temple Moore’, RIBA Journal, vol 35, 26 May 1928, p472.

 

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