You might have visited the Royal Academy this winter for one of their major retrospectives: the revelatory Giovanni Battista Moroni exhibition, controversial Allen Jones or iconic contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, but did you catch the short and sweet display of British modern architecture? ’100 Buildings for 100 Years: Views of British Architecture since 1914′ was made in partnership with the Twentieth Century Society, an organisation responsible for preserving much of our last century’s most important buildings.
In the case of British architecture, the last century was as turbulent as it was triumphant, and this is aptly reflected in the choices for each year made by supporters of the Twentieth Century Society. Ranging from iconic public concert halls and libraries to vernacular housing blocks and factories, this is a true survey of Britain’s buildings, great and …. not so great. This is partly accounted for by the fact that buildings were chosen not necessarily for their prominence and eminence, but for the connections people have to them, and the fascination they now hold for us looking back in hindsight.
There were of course all the London-centric triumphs of modernism which you might expect to be on display, and deservedly so, for these buildings have helped define our present cultural identity: Battersea Power Station, the BT Tower, the British Library, Lloyds, the Barbican, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, the Royal Festival Hall; in fact the whole of the South Bank could have been one item on the list. However, there are lesser-known gems dotted in amongst these titans, which are in greater need of the spotlight.
78 Derngate, Northampton, 1919
Built by William Mobbs, plumber and glazier, in 1815, this Georgian townhouse is actually notable for its dramatic interior remodelling by Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1916. Archetypally Art Deco, and yet startlingly modern, the dining room is a riot of yellow and gold stencilling on sombre brown panelled walls, and similarly stylised furniture, curtains and items proliferate the house, many designed by Mackintosh himself.
78 Derngate, Northampton, 1919 (c) 78 Derngate
“House in the Clouds”, Thorpeness, Suffolk, 1923
This extraordinarily proportioned house, standing at 70 ft, was originally built to house Thorpeness’s water tank, it was devised as a way of disguising what is usually an unattractive structure, turning it into something whimsical. When it was renovated into a house it was rather aptly redesigned for a children’s writer, Mrs Malcolm Mason, who dubbed it “the house in the clouds, reflecting it’s fairytale like aura. Nowadays anyone can rent it out as a holiday home.
House in the Clouds, Suffolk, 1923 (c) Sylvia Le Comber
Shredded Wheat Factory, Welwyn, 1926
This building represents the conflation of country and city: built in a garden city (Welwyn), it nonetheless embodies the commercial industrialisation of the early twentieth century. It’s a structure which I feel evokes nostalgia in the viewer, especially as the buildings have now fallen derelict, unused and unloved.
Shredded Wheat Factory, Welwyn, 1926 (c) Elain Harwood
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, 1935
Set into the foyer floor of this pavilion is a plaque reading: “A modernist building of world renown that will become a crucible for creating a new model of cultural provision in an English seaside town which is going to lead to the growth, prosperity and the greater culture of our town”. This was in 1935, and since then the De La Warr Pavilion has become one of our most iconic Modernist buildings. It is especially fitting that it was in fact one of the first truly Modernist public buildings to be erected in this country, shaking up the sleep Southern coast.
De la Warr Pavilion, East Sussex, 1935 (c) Alan Powers (c) C20 Society
Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, 1944
Significant for its story more than its aesthetic, this rather incongruous chapel was built by Italian prisoners of war in 1944, using scrap materials and two Nissen huts. These humble materials were transformed by artists, electricians and metal workers amongst the prisoners, who created trompe l’oeil painted walls, colour glass windows and a decorative facade.
Italian Chapel, Orkney, 1944 (c) Philip Paris
Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre, North Yorkshire, 1992
A visitor’s centre might be a surprising choice for a list such as this, but this one in North Yorkshire proved that utilitarian buildings could also be aesthetically linked to their landscapes and surrounding, juxtaposing bold Modernist lines (a dramatic diagonal slant for a roof blends into an organic curved roof), and dry stone external walls, set against grassy hills. Uncompromisingly modern, it also manages to respect and converse with its pastoral and historic surroundings.
Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre, North Yorkshire, 1992 (c) Richard Learoyd
Bishop Edward King Chapel, Oxfordshire, 2013
This building’s abstruse elliptical exterior gives it the mysterious air of a monument to an obscure occult religion but perhaps this aura is fitting for its use as a chapel for Ripon Theological College. Upon entering, one is confronted with the breathtaking architecting of light, which enters through an upper ring of glass and filters down through oblique sources to produce a dappled effect, much like sunlight through trees, so that the chapel appears to breathe as the light outside changes. The interior structure is crystalline, 34 timber columns stretch up from the floor to develop intersecting branches at the ceiling, creating a kind of canopy.
Bishop King Edward Chapel, Oxfordshire, 2013 (c) Niall McLaughlin, (c) Nick Kane
To see the complete series, click on the link below:
By Helena Louise Cuss