Conclude your survey of British architecture with an overview of the 20th century—a period when, according to Professor Allitt, some of the nation’s worst buildings were constructed. The early part of the century saw striking achievements, such as Arts and Crafts style country houses, but the post-World War II era was an age of Brutalist concrete, from which we are only just escaping today.
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British Architecture in the Early 20th Century
The 20th century started out with great promise. The confident days before World War I bore witness to beautiful buildings of all sorts, residential, official, and ecclesiastical. Edwin Lutyens one of the most inventive and talented architects in British history, built impressive houses for wealthy clients, such as Tigbourne Court in Surrey, a fine country home that embodies the virtues of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Another exemplary country house is Lutyens’ Castle Drogo in Devonshire. Built for a retail-store millionaire, Castle Drogo was begun in 1911 and not finished until 1931. At first glance, you could mistake it for a building 800 years older, but it took advantage of modern materials and electricity right from the outset.
Lutyens also carried out commissions for major public and corporate buildings, such as a headquarters for the Midland Bank in London, on a short street named “Poultry,” and for the same company in Manchester. The Manchester bank, on King Street, is a Neo-Classical structure of white Portland stone, standing out strongly against the mainly gothic style of central Manchester. Lutyens also designed the Cenotaph, Britain’s principal World War I monument.
Also in the first 20 years of the century were built most of the monumental buildings in which the British government now works, which are referred to collectively as “Whitehall.” Most of them stand on, or adjacent to, the street named Whitehall. Look, for example, at the Government Offices on Great George Street, just off Parliament Square. Designed by John Brydon, it was begun in 1898 and finished in 1917. If it was anywhere else in the world, it would be regarded as a wonder—it’s just that in this location it is overshadowed by Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
British Architecture Post WWI
Even after World War I, some superb buildings were raised in Britain. One of my favorites is the Hoover Building. The firm of Wallis, Gilbert, and Partners was renowned for its Art Deco designs.
Another gem of the inter-war years is Battersea Power Station. Its designer, Giles Gilbert Scott, was the son of a leading Victorian architect and was already famous in his own right as the architect of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Responding to citizens’ concern about a power station being huge and ugly, he came up with an imaginative design, creating the impression that its chimneys are classical columns.
For every medieval or baroque building in Britain, there are today thousands from the 1920s and 1930s. The most famous one of all is probably 251 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool, the house in which John Lennon grew up. It’s a museum now, with furniture and decorations from the 1950s when the young Beatle lived there.
The Destructive Footprint of WWII
After the long misery of the Great Depression, with its widespread unemployment and dreary housing, came the catastrophic Second World War. Sure enough, the bombing soon began—it was worst for Britain in the nine months beginning around September 1940. A famous photograph shows St. Paul’s Cathedral standing proudly amid the blazing wreckage of the neighborhoods all around it.
In addition to industrial targets, much housing was destroyed. The government attempted to re-house the survivors in what was known as “pre-fabs.” These structures, pre-fabricated off-site, largely from corrugated iron and asbestos, were meant to be short-term stop-gaps, adequate for the war years, after which they would be replaced. Nearly all have gone, by now, though enthusiasts ensured that at least a few houses on one representative estate would remain. It is the grandly named Excalibur Estate in Catford, South-East London, whose street names are all drawn from the Arthurian legends.
Giant concrete tower blocks replaced most of the pre-fabs in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They quickly became a byword for ugliness, alienation, crime, depression, drugs, and misery, yet 384 of them were built in London alone, and hundreds more around the country.
Still standing, and widely disliked, is Trellick Tower in Kensal Town, London, begun in 1966 and finished in 1972. It is 31 floors high, made of raw-gray concrete that even bright sunshine cannot mitigate, and includes slit-windows that radiate a mood of “prison” rather than “home.”
The post-war style was not lacking for critics. One was Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II’s oldest son and long-time heir to the throne. About the brutalist Birmingham Central Library, he memorably wrote that it looked more like the kind of building in which books were incinerated than one in which they were protected.
On several occasions, Charles’s criticisms led to plans being abandoned. In 1984, for example, he described a planned extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” His intervention enraged the modernist architectural establishment but drew thousands of positive letters. The plan was abandoned and a more conciliatory style adopted for the extension.
His next move was to build a model village according to the principles he favored, on land belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. It was Poundbury, in Dorset, near the home of the home of Thomas Hardy in Dorchester.
Working with the designer Leon Krier, Charles aimed to take what was best in Britain vernacular design from the preceding centuries, ensure variety in street views, density housing, and more consideration for pedestrians than cars.
The Modern Style in England and Its Critics
Prince Charles was implacable in his opposition to skyscrapers. To him, they seemed inhuman in scale, dwarfing the individuals who had to live and work around them. He was dismissive about Canary Wharf, the great East London development of the late 20th century that gave a new lease on life to an abandoned former dockyard area. Dominated by immense glass towers, Canary Wharf has actually turned out rather well.
The editors of Building Design magazine award the Carbuncle Cup each year to “the ugliest building completed in the UK in the last 12 months.” One building that took the cup—rightly in my view—was the immense high-rise office building at 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London, designed by Rafael Viñoly and finished in 2014.
At the other end of the spectrum from the Carbuncle Cup is the Stirling Prize—an award given by the Royal Institute of British Architects to what its members consider as each year’s best, new building.