British architecture, 1926–1945

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the City Centre on 15 June 2016 celebrating '90 Years of British Architecture'.

I’ve been asked to kick things off by looking at British architecture during the period 1926–1945. In terms of new construction my period really ends in 1939 with the beginning of the Second World War and a time when so many of Britain’s great cities suffered horrendous damage. Architectural thinking continued in the interim as thoughts turned early on to what sort of country might emerge from the rubble of war, and I imagine that will be explored in the talks that follow. So, my focus will be on those initial 13 years.

Architectural historians on the whole like to look for patterns and connections that lead towards consistent narratives with clear arcs: the single innovation being gradually – and traceably – incorporated into the mainstream. In the 1920s that innovation was, of course, Modernism. Le Corbusier’s manifesto for the movement, Vers une Architecture, appeared in 1923 and only had to wait four years for an English translation. For most British Modernists looking back from the 1950s and 1960s, the early 1930s was the moment when the seed of Modern architecture was first planted in Britain, initially struggling to grow in a dense thicket of competing styles, before eventually coming fully into bloom after 1945.

In this way, the 1930s are cast as a period stylistic contest, with the view of Modernism fighting a noble battle against the forces of tradition and historicism, eventually winning out as the true embodiment of the spirit of the new machine age, still holding much sway. Yet, on the other hand, we often hear talk of how, like classicism before it in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Modernism was slow to take hold in Britain, due in varying degrees to our cultural and geographical remove from mainland Europe. Both narratives are clearly teleological in their reading of the 1930s in relation to what came after. Who knows what the course of Modernism in Britain might have been if the Second World War had never happened? And of course that same question might be asked of politics, economics, and even of empire.

So, the task I have set myself in the short time I have is to show through a series of examples some of the amazing architectural variety of a period, in which Modernism certainly did take hold, yet did not begin an inexorable march towards hegemony. And in this way, I hope to show that this was a period not of architectural contest but of co-existence.

The second part of my talk will focus on housing. I won’t really attempt to draw the two parts together; the discussion later on may well be where that happens.

To disprove the point that Britain was somehow resistant to Modernism or that no great works of Modern architecture were being built in Britain during this time, here are some of the highlights, shown in no particular order:

  • High and Over, Amersham, Buckinghamshire, 1929 by Amyas Connell
  • De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, East Sussex, 1935 by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff
  • Highpoint I, Highgate London, 1935 by Berthold Lubetkin
  • Finsbury Health Centre, Finsbury, London, 1938 by Berthold Lubetkin
  • Impington Village College, Impington, Cambridgeshire, 1938 by Walter Gropius 
  • Lawn Road Flats (Isokon Building), Hampstead, 1934 by Wells Coates
  • Kensal House, Ladbroke Grove, London, 1937 by Maxwell Fry
  • Torilla, near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, 1934 by F.R.S. Yorke
  • Pullman Court, Streatham, London 1936 by Frederick Gibberd

All significant works of Modern architecture; some of such high quality that they can hold their own on a European scale.

Another oft-quoted myth is that Modernism's taking hold in Britain depended on the emigrés fleeing Nazi Germany who arrived during the 1930s – and to be sure some like Gropius, Mendelsohn and Lubetkin are among the architects of these buildings. Yet we shouldn't overlook the role of British Modernists, particularly those associated with the Modern Architectural Research or MARS Group. What's more important, I think, is that all these architects found (a variety of) clients for their work, indicating that an appetite for Modernism clearly existed in Britain.

But while the resistance to Modernism in Britain during the 1930s can be overplayed, it certainly did exist. Here’s a passage from Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, published in 1928. The rich a socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde has decided to demolish her centuries-old house, King’s Thursday, and commission a young Modernist to replace it with, in her words 'Something clean and square'.

Professor [Otto Friedrich] Silenus – for that was the title by which this extraordinary young man chose to be called – was a ‘find’ of Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s. He was not yet very famous anywhere, though all who met him carried away deep and diverse impressions of his genius. He had first attracted Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s attention with the rejected design for a chewing-gum factory which had been produced in a progressive Hungarian quarterly. His only other completed work was the décor for a cinema-film of great length and complexity of plot – a complexity rendered the more inextricable by the producer’s austere elimination of all human character, a fact which had proved fatal to its commercial success. He was starving resignedly in a bed-sitting-room in Bloomsbury, despite the untiring efforts of his parents to find him – they were very rich in Hamburg – when he was offered the commission of rebuilding King’s Thursday. ‘Something clean and square’ – he pondered for three hungry days upon the aesthetic implications of these instructions and then began his designs.

‘The problem of architecture as I see it,’ he told a journalist who had come to report on the progress of his surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminium, ‘is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best. All ill comes from man,’ he said gloomily; ‘please tell your readers that. Man is never beautiful, he is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces.’ 

Waugh is clearly playing here on Modernism's foreignness and what he sees as its curtailing of natural English freedoms. It comes over as rather too hysterical, because there is surely no more heterodox or permissive architectural climate in British history than the one the country enjoyed in the 1930s.

Here is another selection, this time non-Modernist buildings:

  • Battersea Power Station, London, 1935 (phase A) and 1955 (phase B) by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott
  • Hoover Building, Perivale, London, 1938 by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners
  • 55 Broadway, Victoria, London, 1929 by Charles Holden
  • 66 Portland Place, Fitzrovia London, 1934 by George Grey Wornum
  • Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Picardy, France, 1932 by Edwin Lutyens
  • St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, 1908 and 1930 by Ninian Comper
  • National Westminster Bank, City of London, 1932 by Edwin Cooper
  • Granada Cinema, Tooting, 1931 by Cecil Masey
  • Odeon Cinema, Warley, Smethwick, West Midlands, 1934 by Thomas Cecil Howitt and Harry William Weedon

Could we muster the same variety today? I think probably not.

So while Modernists and traditionalists disagreed, they did not usually seek to exclude, with the 1930s architecture as a whole marked by a wonderful eclecticism in style and approach, of the co-existence of architectural philosophies, structures and materials.

We see this even in one street. This is Daily Telegraph building on Fleet Street. It was designed by Elcock and Sutcliffe with Thomas Tait and built 1928–31 to replace the Telegraph’s previous late-Victorian building on the site. It employs a kind of over-sized (at least for the context) Graeco-Egyptian style, making a powerful statement to the street with those massive, abstracted columns and the projecting Art Deco clock.

And this is the the almost exactly contemporary Daily Express building just a few doors to the east on the same street, 1930–31. The original proposal was for a conventional steel-framed and stone-fronted building, which might have looked a little like the Telegraph’s. This was supplanted by Owen Williams’ idea of using a concrete frame to double the unobstructed width of the printing hall in the basement. The result was the first true curtain-walled building in London with its façade of black Vitrolite or transparent glass set into chromium strips – all wonderfully smooth. Some say Williams wanted to go further and expose the concrete frame, but was overruled, apparently by Lord Beaverbrook himself. (The entrance hall is Art Deco fantasy by Robert Atkinson with reliefs by Eric Aumonier.)

Both buildings attempt to do the same thing, at the same time – embody the power and influence of their respective institutions – but go about it in completely different ways. They shouldn’t be able to co-exist as they do, but to my eyes they do so happily. Fleet Street has always been an eclectic street with its mixture of narrow frontages and grand nineteenth-century impositions. These two buildings simply represent its continuation.

That spirit could even be manifested in one single building, with the most dramatic, yet unassuming case in point being Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel’s St Olave’s House on Tooley Street (1929–31). From the river we see a rather elegant deco-ish façade, whose main focus are the central windows on the first three storeys embossed by gilded panels by Frank Dobson.

On the street front we see what looks like almost a different building. Its crystalline white, functionalism is as modern as anything in London at the time, though on close inspection rather more complex than it initially appears (look at those top level windows and octagonal turrets). Though he was a idiosyncratic and at times quite strange figure, there was great validity in Goodhart-Rendel’s notion that the choice of style should depend on a building’s function and location, and not be pre-ordained through architectural ideology.

Housing and the market

I’ve looked up to this point at architecture with a capital A, but in many ways the more mundane realm of Metroland and mass housing is of greater lasting importance – and with something to offer the present moment.

As we often hear in the media, the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 is among the slowest on record. The recovery after the rather more severe Great Depression was actually far quicker. In each year from 1933 to 1936, economic growth was over 4% – numbers our political leaders would sell their grannies for today. This was aided by an expansionary monetary policy once the pound came off the gold standard in 1931, with interest rates at near zero – the latter being familiar to us today. But rather than ending up in banks coffers as today’s quantitative easing has done, the increase in money supply drove a massive expansion in house building by the private sector.

I want now to show a graph that will be familiar to lots of you. Produced by for a report called ‘A Right to Build’, which was published in 2011 by Sheffield University’s school of architecture and Architecture 00, it shows housing completions by tenure – public sector, private sector and housing association – from 1945 to 2010. The usual thing is to note the huge increase public sector housing completions in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s which then tails off to almost nothing after the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, the private sector remains roughly constant, ebbing and flowing with economic boom and recession – and not filling the numbers left by the public sector retreat, as many predicted would happen. The line shows what’s happened during this time to average house prices, which remain roughly constant until the roll-back of the public sector and then increase exponentially. 

The graph perfectly fits the narrative about the need for the state to start building houses again in response to our crisis of housing affordability.

Rarely seen is what this graph looked like in the 1930s, which reveals a rather different picture. As you can see, it’s exactly the same information, just extended back to 1921.

In 1931–32 private sector house completions were 133,000, rising to 293,000 in 1934–35 and then 279,000 in 1935–36 – well above the generally assumed number we need to be building today of 250,000 a year. And as we know, money invested in construction has a multiplying effect in the wider economy, so that up to a third of that aforementioned GDP increase at that time is attributable to housing construction.

And this housing was cheap. 85% of these new houses sold for £750 which in today’s money is – anyone want to hazard a guess? – just £45,000. And these were good houses that people liked living in then and like living in now.

Why were they so inexpensive? Construction costs were low, which certainly helped. and mortgages were easy to come by. But the biggest factor was that land was cheap – so housing was more of a low-margin, high volume game where there was little incentive to artificially restrict supply to keep prices high. And it hardly needs saying that the reason land was cheap was because it was in plentiful supply; this was, of course, an era before the advent of planning as we known and the Green Belt.

So, looking at that extended graph once more, we might draw a different conclusion to the one noted above: what is actually preventing the private sector increasing house completions above the more of less consistent level of the last 60 years, and reaching the levels they did during the 1930s, is not developers’ greed, as we so often hear, but the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.