When the 20th century opened, the United Kingdom was at the height of its political power and influence and moreover was valued in Europe as a source of ideas in architecture. In terms of modern art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was seen to be an originator of the Art Nouveau style and became a positive influence on the Secessionist style as it developed in Vienna. During 1898, Adolf Loos wrote many polemical articles in Vienna’s Neue freie Presse praising English fashion and products. With HermannMuthesius’s publication of Das englischer Haus in 1904, Britain seemed to be ahead of continental Europe in providing more flexible models of houses and housing, one of the main strands of modernism in architecture.
However, the development was not confined to matters of taste. In terms of economics, the social structure of Britain had been changing since the onset of the industrial revolution in the later 18th century and had now created the conditions pertaining to a mass culture. Britain had pioneered the development of new industrial products from the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The rapid growth of London, following the explosion of the middle class and the concurrent expansion of metropolitan railways, had ensured that Britain was ahead both in achieving urban growth and thereby in being forced to begin dealing with typical 20th-century problems.
The speed with which agricultural land on the outer rim was being consumed by new housing led to anxieties about the loss of food production, and with the publication in 1902 of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow, urban growth was for the first time subjected to theory, the theory of limiting it by means of new towns located within a “green belt” of protected countryside. First Letchworth in 1903 and later Welwyn in 1920 confirmed local government acceptance of Howard’s thesis as the basis of urban expansion. However, this context also explains why home building in Britain took on a “rural” character because it was conceived as the opposite to city living. No doubt, a love of medieval models and the enormous success of the Arts and Crafts movement promoted by William Morris in the tradition of John Ruskin contributed to this attitude. Vernacular architecture was thought proper for suburban housing and was also adopted by architects working individually for more affluent clients: architects such as C.R.Ashbee, C.F.A.Voysey, Richard Norman Shaw, and Edwin Landseer Lutyens.
However, British culture remained strangely parochial. The French scandal of the new century turned on the Dreyfus case, a question of social identity, but the corresponding British scandal turned on Oscar Wilde, a question of personal identity. Fleeing from social ostracism, Wilde took refuge in France, and France remained the cultural center of Europe. During the years of the Entente Cordiale, French influence became paramount. At a time when even well-to-do people could not afford to build individual town houses, apartment living began to appeal to the middle class, and many apartments serviced by elevators were built in Marylebone and in Battersea, popularly known as “mansion flats.” Building apartments rather than one-family houses added more effectively to city fabric, and the popular center around Piccadilly Circus became the focus of Edwardian pretensions. Shaw’s style became eclectic, and his Piccadilly Hotel (1905–08) and Regent Street Quadrant are imbued with a heavy classicism. His disciple, Reginald Blomfield, later built two sides of Piccadilly Circus (1913–30) in an elegant French baroque. Mewès and Davis built the Ritz Hotel (1906), of which the grand arcade to Piccadilly is modeled on Percier and Fontaine’s rue de Rivoli. It is noteworthy that Lutyens took French models for much of his later rural work, and his imperial work in New Delhi, although highly original, is conceived in a spirit of French grandeur. Between 1901 and 1913, Aston Webb laid out the Rond Point with Queen Victoria’s statue, in front of Buckingham Palace, and Admiralty Arch in emulation of the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe.
Howard Robertson, architect of the Financial Times Building in London, was the mainsource of theory in the schools, his Principles of Composition being based largely on Guadet. The Beaux-Arts dominated architectural education until the outbreak of World War I, with Robertson at the Architectural Association, Albert Richardson at London University, and Charles Reilly and W.A. Eden at Liverpool University. Where the Arts and Crafts model did not hold, it was the classical model that did. Courtenay Square (1914) in Kennington, by Adshead and Ramsey, is probably the last example of a reduced classicism still executed with conviction. By the 1920s, a neo-Georgian style dominated in architecture, as it did in poetry.
Howard Robertson’s influence extended beyond theory, and his participation in the Paris Exposition of 1925 led to a considerable enthusiasm for the Art Deco style, which he promoted during the 1920s. This style is demonstrative and populist without attaining the modernist ideal of renouncing style as much. Many town halls, cinemas, and lidos were built in a lighthearted vein across the country, and the most distinguished probably are those by Oliver Bernard, whose foyers for the Strand Palace Hotel (1929–30) are superb. To this taste was added a liking for decorative brickwork stemming from the influence of W.M. Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall, apparent in the Royal Masonic Hospital (1930–34) by Sir John Burnett Tait and Lorne. The latter firm was typical in veering between a monumental classicism, sometimes with Egyptian overtones, and a reduced moderne, until in 1932 it dipped into a crude streamlined modernism, as exemplified in the Mount Royal Hotel on Oxford Street.
A certain eclecticism was in order. The Hoover Factory in Western Avenue by Wallis Gilbert, in a sort of modernized palatial mode, is the most exuberant instance of the hybrid architecture produced in Britain at this time, but the same architect could come close to an authentic modern idiom in his Daimler Car Hire Garage (1931). Charles Holden could build the Senate House and Library (1932–34) for London University in an inflated if stripped-down classical style and at the same time prefigure the modern in his very controlled work for the Piccadilly Line Underground stations at Arnos Grove and Southgate. Only Joseph Emberton, formerly an assistant to Gordon Tait, achieved genuine modernity with his Yacht Club (1930–32) at Burnham-on-Crouch and two London stores, Simpson’s Piccadilly (1934–36) and the HMV Building (1938–39) on Oxford Street.
The Modern style as such did not appear in England until the very end of the 1920s by way of private individuals building villas. A breakthrough was made by the architect Amyas Connell in his famous High and Over (1927–29) at Amersham in Buckinghamshire. It is almost contemporary with Le Corbusier’s Les Heures Claires at Poissy and appears to derive its aesthetic from the LaRoche-Jeanneret houses in the rue du Docteur Blanche, which Connell had seen on a visit to Paris in 1926. Here the trefoil plan does not conform to the new rationalism but stems, rather, from Lutyens. The influence of Le Corbusier was furthered by the publication in 1927 of Frederick Etchell’s translation of Vers Une Architecture. Connell joined with two others to form the Connell, Ward, and Lucas partnership, and throughout the 1930s they produced a number of radical houses in a white-walled modern style, with windows arranged in horizontal runs. Particularly noteworthy is a group of three houses at Saltdean where the flat-roof terrace is approached by an extruded external staircase, as in Le Corbusier’s “gratte-ciel” houses at Pessac of 1925. However, they also succeeded in building in the heart of conservativeHampstead a canonic modern house at 66 Frognal.
A wider European horizon was opened up by the arrival of refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Erick Mendelsohn, and Serge Chermayeff appeared within a short period, and the last two collaborated to build the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, while Chermayeff also completed a villa (1934) at Rugby, his own house (1935–38) at Bendey Wood near Hallam, and a warehouse for Gilbey’s Gin in Camden Town. In several cases, important collaborations were entered on, with an effect on the future of English practice. Gropius collaborated with E.Maxwell Fiy in a house in Chelsea and in several unbuilt university projects as well as the Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire, which became a model for much subsequent English practice. Breuer collaborated with F.R.S.Yorke in a house (1936–37) at Angmering-on-Sea and more famously for an exhibit at the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1936, which projected an ultramodern image of “The Garden City of the Future.” Fry succeeded at the same time in invading Hampstead with his own version of modernity, the “Sun House” at 9 Frognal Way, which was well received and prepared the way for a wider acceptance of the Modern style after the war.
There were a few indigenous architects who made their mark in the 1930s and made important contributions to the development of an English modernism: H.S.GoodhartRendel (Hays Wharf, 1929–31), George Checkley (“Thurso” house, in Cambridge, 1932), Christopher Nicolson (studio for Augustus John, 1933–34, and the London Gliding Club, Dunstable, 1934–35), Frederick Gibberd (Pullman Curt, Streatham, 1935), Raymond McGrath (house in Chertsey, 1936–37), and David Pleydell-Bouverie (Ramsgate Municipal Airport, 1936–37). It is undeniable, however, that the more original impulses came from abroad: conspicuous were Wells Coates (from Canada), whose Isokon Apartments in Camden, designed for the Pritchards in 1932–34, are still highly desired by young professionals and whose apartments (1934–35) at Brighton are a model of directness and elegance; William Lescaze (from Switzerland), whose buildings (1931– 36) for the progressive school at Dartington Hall were architecturally progressive, too; and Erno Goldfinger (from Hungary), who won competitions but whose projects were unbuilt until after the war.
Perhaps most important was the collaboration between the natives Francis Skinner and Lindsey Drake and the Russian émi-gré Berthold Lubetkin in the partnership called Tecton. Lubetkin not only was energetic but also believed that the functionalist creed to which he subscribed did not deny the architect’s right to make art. The Penguin Pool (1932) at the London Zoo is as playful as it is geometric, and the apartment blocks constructed at Highgate—Highpoint I (1933–35) and Highpoint II (1936–38)—are equally virtuoso in their deployment of abstract forms. Published in The Architectural Review, these buildings signaled the acceptance of Modern architecture by establishment critics. Its acceptance by the general public had to wait until after World War II.
A young architect who first joined Tecton and later worked on his own account was important in effecting this transition. This was Denys Lasdun. In 1948, still collaborating with Tecton, he began work on an extensive estate of public housing at Hallfield, in Paddington, together with a primary school. The elevations are marked by Lubetkin’s preference for breaking the pattern of verticals at alternate floors, but the finesse Lasdun showed here gave him a central role in introducing the Modern style to a wider public.
With the election of a Labour government in 1945, England was motivated by a new spirit of cooperation produced through the war years. This spirit was celebrated in the Festival of Britain (1951), a coordinated group of exhibition buildings on semiderelict land on the south bank of the Thames opposite Charing Cross, highly visible to the public. It was put together with speed and virtuosity under the direction of Hugh Casson. With the installation of a Labour government, municipalities and local authorities were given new powers to clear slums and bomb damage and to expand public investment in building housing, schools, new universities, and even new towns. Architecture in Britain in the 1950s was earnest and populist, taking its cue from the Festival of Britain style. In the eyes of the younger generation, it was condemned as fainthearted.
The Smithsons, Alison and Peter, were the first representatives of the postwar generation. Fiercely critical of the Festival style, they expressed a determination to remake architecture in the name of ordinary people without ceasing to be radical. Their design for housing in the Golden Lane Competition (1952) showed how the access decks for high-rise housing could become “street decks,” linking different quarters together with a pedestrian network free from traffic circulation. This was not simply a proposal for housing; rather, it was a fundamental reworking of the city and, in theory, a way of building whole towns. The open-air access deck had been instituted through poor-law housing built by the Peabody Estate in the 1890s, and the system was now adopted by municipalities. The Smithsons provided intellectual leadership for the younger generation, addressing themselves to the architectural establishment as would-be reformers. Their polemic against what they called the “wasteland of the Four Functions” brought an end to the bureaucratic rationalism of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and replaced it with the more self-critical although short-lived meetings of Team X.
Their design for Hunstanton School (1950–54) was broadly Miesian in origin but less monumental, reflecting also the influence of Rudolf Wittkower, who had brought the achievements of Palladio into new focus: if Palladio could create architecture out of farm buildings, surely the modern architect could do it with utilitarian sheds. The light steel structure was used with an extreme economy, and structural walls, pipes, and services were left exposed. The result, in the view of the critic Reyner Banham, was the defining moment of a new approach—the New Brutalism—seeking an absolute honesty by exposing the mechanisms as well as the structure. Although hardly a British invention, Brutalism dominated British architecture for several decades. It was an important influence in the formation of the Archigram Group by Peter Cook in 1962 and led on to the High-Tech style, which by the 1980s had become the dominant style in Britain.
In many respects, the Smithsons’ design for the Economist Building (1963–64) represents their considered view of what an honest architecture “without rhetoric” should be. This design broke with commercial grandiosity and showed how a building could be divided into smaller entities that could be more easily absorbed into the city pattern. After the Economist Building, the Smithsons were well placed to become a successful practice. However, this did not happen, and their public housing at Robin Hood Lane was not well received.
The architects were not alone to blame for this. Both Labour and Conservative governments fell into the trap of assessing housing policy in terms of quantity rather thansocial effectiveness. Many mistakes were made in terms of both social environment and technical construction. In London, the collapse of an apartment block at Ronan Point signaled the end of the belief that reconstruction had been successful. Later, this collapse took on a symbolic significance, roughly equivalent to the tearing down of the Pruitt Igoe estate in St. Louis. It marked an end to the supposition that progress was inevitable and preordained.
However, this was not just a local phenomenon; it was worldwide in its impact. In the United States, the Vietnam War, in which a powerful industrial nation could not prevail against a determined people, had introduced doubt about the inevitability of technological growth. Europe, too, felt a certain loss of vision after the student events of 1968 and the oil crisis of 1973. Banham was disappointed in the reception of Brutalism by architects and accused them of monumentalism. The influence that led to this tendency was that of Le Corbusier, but it would not have taken hold so quickly had it not been for the advocacy of Leslie Martin. As chief architect of the London County Council (LCC) in 1953, he promoted a rationalized use of the Le Corbusian grid. After the construction of miniature Unite d’Habitation at Roehamption (1951–60), the Le Corbusian style was adopted for much local authority housing in London.
On resigning from the LCC, Leslie Martin founded a new professional school of architecture at Cambridge University. Martin’s task was to balance the claims of research and practice and normalize an architecture that could be seen to fit into the traditional campus setting. He took a number of young architects with him who shared his admiration for rational outcomes but who were also able to act with discretion. Among these were Colin St. John Wilson, Patrick Hodgkinson, and Ivor Smith. The influence of Le Corbusier remained primary, but there was also an influence from Alvar Aalto. In Harvey Court (1957–62), a block of student residences for Gonville and Caius College designed with Wilson and Hodgkinson, the structure is in reinforced concrete, but the facing is in brickwork, so that the appearance is softened and adapted to the Cambridge scene. The internal court is also softened by stepping back the accommodation in tiers. Hodgkinson collaborated with Martin in the public housing (1965–73) carried out for Camden Council at the Foundling Estate near Russell Square. Here again, we have a stepped section, with private balconies facing east and west. Quite remarkable is the profiling of the service towers: the tops with their carefully detailed vents have more than a hint of Sant’ Elia futurism, and the gable ends reveal a powerful sculptural aspect that comes pretty close to Expressionism.
Another young Cambridge architect heavily influenced by Leslie Martin was Ivor Smith. His fame rests on his role as chief designer to J.L. Womersley, the chief architect to the city of Sheffield, in the construction of housing (1955–65) at Park Hill and Hyde Park, but somewhat problematically it takes on the huge scale of what Banham termed a “megastructure.” Another influence in the same direction came from the architect Denys Lasdun, who further adapted the Le Corbusian model by a confident use of the stepped section. His mammoth layout (1962–69) for the University of East Anglia and his residential extensions (1969–70) to Christ’s College, Cambridge, both use stepped forms to allow the buildings to melt into the landscape. In another megastructure at Alexandria Road, public housing (1969–79) for the London County Council, the architect Neave Brown created yet another project based on the setback section, but with an explicitideology not about landscape as such but attempting to recuperate the street as a social space.
The search for a constructional method more suitable for the British climate led to an exploration of brickwork, probably encouraged by Le Corbusier’s design for the Maisons Jaoul in Paris. Most visible were the many buildings (1962–75), some using Jaoul-type vaults, constructed by Basil Spence for the University of Sussex. Most influential on other architects was the very precise use of brickwork adopted by the architects Stirling and Gowan, first in their flats (1955–58) at Ham Common and then in their building (1959–63) for the Engineering Faculty at Leicester University, where it was combined with large areas of standard glazing to spectacular effect. After the dissolution of the partnership, Stirling continued this “red-brick” attack on the ancient universities with his History Faculty (1964–67) at Cambridge and the Florey Building (1966–71) at Oxford. Although he built a major extension of the Tate Gallery in London, Stirling was not fully appreciated in Britain during his lifetime. He built in the United States for Rice University, the University of California, and Harvard University, and his Performing Arts Center (1983–88) at Cornell University is a gem of a building. He was appreciated as a master architect in Germany and built there extensively: at Stuttgart (the Neue Staatsgalerie and Music School, 1977–94), at Berlin (the Wissenschaftszentrum, 1979– 87), and at Melsungen (the Braun Pharmaceutical Headquarters, 1989–92). He is arguably the most important and distinctive British architect of his generation, and his contribution to world architecture has not yet been fully assessed.
During the 1980s, British architecture was most influential when presented as a continuation of the Brutalist tradition founded by the Smithsons, emphasizing structure and services as principal expression. Important for this outcome were the teaching of Peter Cook and the fantasies of the Archigram Group, which he founded in 1962. Members of this group were employed by Piano and Rogers in making the detailed drawings for the Centre Pompidou (1971–77) in Paris, so there is a direct connection. Rogers’s design for Lloyds Headquarters (1978–86) in London was in a similar vein, and specialized industrial buildings in the United States, Wales, and France have confirmed his reputation as a “scientific” architect. More recently, his European Court of Human Rights (1989–94) at Strasbourg and other projects for France show an increasing interest in the use of expressive curves as well as in adapting themselves more cogently to their sites. Designing for buildings in the city center had brought out a need to accommodate to context, and Rogers’s commitment to the inner city was confirmed by the publication of his Reith Lectures (1995), where he made a strong argument for buildings that will be part of both a sustainable environment and a dense city fabric.
More versatile in his use of industrial components, Norman Foster has become the leading exponent of what is now referred to as the High-Tech style. Originally in partnership with Rogers (and both of their wives) as Team Four, they share a similar approach. He was first recognized for the Willis Faber and Dumas Building (1975) in Ipswich and the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (1978) at the University of East Anglia. More recently, the elegance of Stansted Airport (1990–91) has made him known to a wider public. The telecommunications tower at Torre di Collserola, near Barcelona, exploits the image of mechanism to great effect, but the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (1979–85) in Hong Kong and the Carré d’Art at Nîmes (1984–93) in France, by their very differences, indicate that, for all the emphasis on structure, Foster is sensitive to site conditions and can make appropriate interventions in different contexts. His ability to adjust to existing conditions was proved in the Sackler Gallery (1985–92) at the Royal Academy and confirmed by his renovations of the German Reichstag and the British Museum, both of which use elegant steel-and-glass structures to modernize classical buildings.
Younger architects who followed the High-Tech line were Farrell and Grimshaw. A partnership at the outset, they split dramatically in 1980, when Terry Farrell adopted a more variable Postmodern approach. His most conspicuous success is Embankment Place, a new commercial construction built above Charing Cross Station and highly visible from the river. Nicholas Grimshaw stayed loyal to the fixed canon of industrial architecture, but his Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo demonstrates great verve in the way it exploits the site conditions to make an expressive space. A near contemporary, Michael Hopkins, made a sophisticated industrial tent (1985) for Schlumberger at Cambridge but has shown great sensitivity with his Mound Stand (1987) at Lords Cricket Ground and the new opera house (1992–94) at Glyndbourne. His new offices for members of Parliament, opposite Big Ben, make the exposed ducting for natural ventilation into a sort of medieval roof, a strange metamorphosis of Louis Kahn’s idea that the exposed servicing systems should supply the monumental aspect of a modern building.
It may be possible to deduce from these examples that, in today’s United Kingdom, discretion is more important than ideology. Yet the worship of technological know-how pervades British architecture, and a still-younger generation bows to it. Will Alsop, of Alsop and Stormer, has risen to prominence with his Town Hall for Marseilles (Le Grand Bleu), and they have constructed a rail station at North Greenwich, one of the many new stations required to service the Jubilee Line, the only completely new Underground line to be constructed in London since the war, most of which make expressive use of steel and glass. Jan Kaplicky, cofounder with Amanda Levete of the aptly named Future Systems, has so far built little but has received funding from the National Lottery for the construction of a spectacular Eco-Centre at Doncaster. All these architects employ industrial components not as rational expedients but with an eye to their expressive potential. It is possible to speak of a trend that looks to revive the expressive aspects discovered by the Brutalists in the 1950s.
Indeed, with the 20th century now safely completed, the drive to attach architecture firmly to its purely physical determinants seems to have weakened to the point where one can discern a movement to revive the concept of architecture as art, as originally proposed by the Russian Constructivists. This tendency was pronounced in the early work of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, founded in 1975 by Rem Koolhaas, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Elia Zenghelis, which at its inception practiced from London. From that background, Zaha Hadid has risen to prominence, largely because of the rejection of her winning design for the Cardiff Opera House, which led to a sympathetic reaction in her favor. She now has important commissions on foot in Germany, Italy, and Israel. Her presentations, as distinct from her constructions, are still remarkable insofar as they imitate the weightless qualities of Malevich’s paintings. When they are transformed into actual constructions, as with the Fire Station (1993, with Patrik Schumacher) at Vitea in Weil am Rhein, some loss of spirit occurs. Rem Koolhaas, who still maintains an Entries A–Z 809 office in London, was the originator of this manner; in construction, however, his projects take on a distinctly surreal aspect, as with his Villa Dall’Ava in Paris (1985–91) and his Convention Hall (1991–97) at the International Business Centre at Lille and still more with his villa at Bordeaux.
Even more equivocal, from the rationalist point of view, are the designs proposed in Britain by the American-Polish architect Daniel Libeskind: an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Imperial War Museum for Manchester. In both cases, the design arises from a distinctly personal impulse: it is conceptual, indeed, but above all it is gestural. These designs are hardly representative of Britain, but the fact that they have been accepted by British cities is highly significant. Now the traditional forms of modernism, supposedly derived from rational procedure and with all the security of an objective judgment, suddenly appear as personal expression, which in principle means subject to whim and open to question. Britain, it appears, has finally joined the rest of the world in accepting the fundamental uncertainty of the postmodern condition.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.