BRITISH ARCHITECTURE IN THE 20th CENTURY

Professor Peter Clegg, University of Bath and Fielden Clegg Associates, on 15 September 1999

The purpose of the talk is to give a personal overview of the development of modern architecture in Britain from its roots in the late 19th century through to the present day.

Contemporary architecture in Britain was dramatically influenced by early 20th century modernist thought from continental Europe, but this in turn has roots in a philosophy of architecture propounded in the mid 19th century by Pugin and Morris, and later by Voysey and Mackintosh. It was their preoccupation with `honesty' in architectural form and details, that found itself transposed into the functionalism propounded by Gropius and the theoreticians of the Bauhaus.

There are also roots in the British engineering tradition of the 19th century (as exemplified by Paxton's design for the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851) - which influenced the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus, with their obsession with steel and glass as a counterpoint to white concrete and render.

Just as the influence of Morris and Mackintosh was felt in Germany, so the modernist philosophy found its way back across the channel as many of the leading lights such as Breuer and Gropius fled the Nazi regime in Germany. Gropius built at Dartington in Devon as did Lescaze from California, introducing pristine cubist architecture to the UK in the 1930s.

The holistic theory that emerged from the Bauhaus was that the new architecture should enhance and support a new social view based on the use of a new technology, and not just provide a new architectural aesthetic. This theory only truly emerged in England after the second world war. It was very evident in the Festival of Britain architecture and the new schools and homes that were built in the 1950s by a new post-war socialist Government.

However significant the changes may have been at the time, the failures of cheap ill-considered modern architecture began to show. This is as evident in Bath as in any city in the UK, with the quality of architecture generally declining in the second half of the 19th century, until the late 1960s, when, with the crisis of confidence in architecture, development and planning, there was a return to conservatism, a rejection of anything that could seen to be new, and a reliance on sham vernacular and post-modernism.

At the end of the century both British architecture and British engineering are beginning to re-establish themselves, and many `signature' architects have emerged who produce extremely high quality work abroad despite the fact that they have been given little opportunity in the UK. Richard Rogers' reputation was made by the Pompidou Centre, thirty years before he designed the Millennium Dome in the UK. He is leading a new task force looking at urban regeneration. Norman Foster's work is also better-known abroad, despite fascinating local buildings such as the Renault Centre at Swindon. With these two established architects and a generation of younger ones who are reinterpreting the values and aesthetics of the early modern movement, there is cause for optimism at the end of the century.

Whereas European modernism, therefore, has dominated the century with its revolutionary social and technological impetus, the roots of both these influences can be found in the work of Paxton and Pugin illustrated in 1851 at the Great Exhibition. Throughout the century, other influences emerged as window-dressing — stylistically applied to the fundamentals of honest architecture. We are left, however, with a new imperative, environmentalism, which needs to be absorbed into modernist thought to produce an appropriate and sustainable architecture of the 21st century.

Peter Clegg