While architects who turned to vernacular precedents in the 1930s have typically been called reactionary, is it time we reassessed their work as proto-Postmodernism – or abandoned such categories entirely?
In 1933, a young AA-trained architect Colin R Crickmay (1904-99) received a private commission for a small house at Jordans in Buckinghamshire. The couple, Gilbert and Betty Jenkins, had travelled in Europe and seen the Weissenhof, while Crickmay was working for Mendelsohn and Chermayeff on Shrub’s Wood at Gerrards Cross, a major example of mature Modernism, with Mendelsohn’s 15 years of experience in Germany behind it. Crickmay’s building, Twitchells End, constrained by budget, built of white-painted brick with a few projections in concrete, but cleverly adapted to a difficult site, cannot be counted as a major work, but it was featured in two mainstream journals, one being the AR, and went on to become an exemplar in FRS Yorke’s book, The Modern House in England, published by the Architectural Press in 1937 and revised and reprinted several times.1
Crickmay never designed another Modernist house and after this brief appearance in the limelight fades from the view of history. However, another Architectural Press collection, Small Houses £500-£2,500, edited by H Myles Wright, also published in 1937 (Fig.2), contains a different house by Crickmay, also at Jordans. For want of a better word, it is ‘traditional’, with a steep pitched roof and a catslide to the rear like a New England saltbox, plus Burnham yellow stock bricks, but the windows are the same steel casements as at Twitchells End, and there is nothing overtly ‘period’ about it. In later life, Crickmay explained to David Boswell, who was researching Twitchells End, ‘I came to the conclusion quite early on that a flat roof was not really suitable for this country. That was one of the reasons. Clients were not receptive to this type of design and it was not until well after the war that it was generally adopted. Local authorities were not in favour of modern design. The other was that I could not see any excuse for building that sort of house unless it was in reinforced concrete. (A): you would want an engineer, which clients would not necessarily be prepared to pay for; (B): there were all sorts of technical problems that the builders weren’t very good at. So I went right off it.’2
Such pragmatic arguments seem alien to the ‘heroic’ interpretation of 1930s architecture in England that catalogues every flat roof and includes the rest very selectively if at all. Such was the attitude of Yorke’s book, but not of Myles Wright’s or, indeed, most of the other similar collections of house plans and photos that were presumably issued to help prospective middle-class clients to work out what they wanted, offering some flat roofs, some overtly neo-Georgian (architects such as Oswald Milne appear in both categories) and a good deal somewhere in between, including early works by luminaries such as Hugh Casson and Jane Drew. Wright’s text includes a section ‘The Treacherous Question of Style’, which dodges the issue by urging a level field of positivist practicality, slightly tilted according to personal taste. It unites all right thinking people in opposition to ‘the eye-catchers of the speculative housing boom’ and leaves it at that.
Looking through these books today, we might use words such as ‘timid’ or ‘compromise’ for houses such as Crickmay’s Birchfield rather than words such as ‘rationalist’ or ‘realist’. This is a conditioned response, often coloured by the memory that, as John Summerson wrote in a wartime article, ‘Hitler hates flat roofs’ (what would have been the future of Modernism had he liked them?).3 Yet looking at Crickmay’s two houses side by side, it is the pitched roof one that looks more like, say, Mole Architects Black House of 2004, partly because of the oddity of its physical volume and partly because of the unusual and clearly intentional play of solid against void in the window arrangement. Is this a call from the present to review the critical standards that we apply to the inter-war past?
A less loaded word we might apply to Birchfield is ‘vernacular’, a word that gained currency among young Modernists in the late 1930s, even becoming a synonym for Modernism itself.4 One of them, Kenneth Capon of ACP and later the designer of Essex University, built a quirky brick and timber house for his mother at Sonning in 1942 that could almost pass for an early work of Ted Cullinan.5 This is not surprising, since they sought to incorporate rather than reject tradition and redefine it in their own terms. Leonard Manasseh commented on the Sonning house in the AA Journal in relation to the perceived failure of Modernist wall finishes, ‘these are grave faults and freely admitted by sincere architects who believe in the future of modern architecture’.6
Foreign commentators such as Steen Eiler Rasmussen had told the English that the essence of their Modernism lay in ‘timeless’ anonymous object-types, such as sporting clothes and equipment, Wedgwood cups and saucers and shaving brushes.7 Nikolaus Pevsner had traced the line from Arts and Crafts to Modernism, and here were architects going backwards along it towards the source, as conscious as any flat-roofer that they should avoid pastiche, including pastiche Modernism, and work from unselfconscious deployment of economics and reason. This was what WR Lethaby called for, and his inspiration seems to have continued beyond his death in 1931 – indeed Yorke took the full-page epigraph for his 1937 book from Lethaby, and by 1937 was himself abandoning concrete for monopitch with brick and stone.
This is not just an English problem of reconciling past and present and finding other standards of judgement. Joseph Masheck’s Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture (2013) contains a useful discussion of the relationship between classicism, Modernism and vernacular in Loos’s thinking and practice. For Loos, houses are a special case, vernacular by definition and distinct from monuments. Masheck is happy to reduce his analysis to the two dimensions of the elevational pattern, justifiably, perhaps, since this is what non-architects look for first. On this level, the gaps between stylistic positions can close up, especially when supposedly ‘traditional’ designers play the Modernist game of following the logic of the plan and section for their size and spacing of windows. Myles Wright illustrates the house of architect Douglas Rowntree (1888-1966) at Gerrards Cross, a long thin plan with a steep roof and elevations where the plan compels unconventional patterns for the standard Georgian sashes.8 Is this Revivalism, Functionalism, Mannerism or Proto-Postmodernism? If we have difficulty deciding, does this indicate that such terms are inhibiting us from seeing what is out there?
Alan Powers will be speaking on ‘The Quality without a Name’: True and False Vernacular in Post-war British Domestic Design’ at the conference Vernacular Revivals at Rewley House, Oxford, 25-27 September 2015.
1. Architect and Building News, vol 140, 14 December 1934, pp336-7; Architectural Review, vol 78, August 1935, pp53-4 and vol 80, December 1936, pp243-4.
2. Quoted in David Boswell, ‘Designing Twitchells End at Jordans, Buckinghamshire’ in Elain Harwood and Alan Powers eds, Houses: Regional Practice and Local Character, Twentieth Century Architecture 12, 2015.
3. John Summerson, ‘New Groundwork of Architecture’, World Review, 1941, reprinted in JRM Brumwell, ed, This Changing World, London, Routledge, 1944, pp182-93.
4. For example, Tim Bennett, ‘What Sort of House do you Want?’, World Review, December 1942, pp34-41.
5. Architects Co-Operative Partnership, ‘Small House at Sonning’, AA Journal, January 1943, pp54-7; Builder, 26 February 1943, pp197-9.
6. Leonard Manasseh, ‘A House at Sonning by The Architects’ Co-Operative Partnership’, AA Journal, January 1943, p54.
7. Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Britisk Brugskunst, Copenhagen, Det Dansk Kunstindustrimuseum, 1933.
8. H Myles Wright, Small Houses £500-£2,500, London, Architectural Press, 1937, p73.