Interwar architecture was much more than modernism

  • Themes: Architecture

A posthumous volume of the architectural historian Gavin Stamp's writing on the interwar period is the crowning masterpiece of a remarkable career.

Battersea Power Station
Battersea Power Station. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Interwar British Architecture 1919-1939, Gavin Stamp, Profile, £40

The interwar period can be, to use a word from this book, ‘exasperating’ for architectural historians. There was such a plurality of styles, some being practised simultaneously by the same architects. The one that has received most attention – not a style at all, according to old-fashioned supporters, by a manifestation of the Zeitgeist – is the Modern Movement, which arrived from the Continent in the late 1920s and was bolstered in the 1930s by refugees from Germany. That was a minority taste before the Second World War, seen only in a small number of buildings – private houses, flats, airports, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. How to make sense of it all? The architectural historian who knew as much about it as anyone, Gavin Stamp, never put his great knowledge into a book. Thank goodness, though, that he left notes on his computer. His widow, Rosemary Hill, herself acclaimed for her biography of A.W.N.Pugin, God’s Architect, has forged them into the present volume and it’s a tour de force.

Reading it, I felt the Oh-So-That’s-It relief of having been given the answer to a difficult puzzle. Each of the nine chapters takes a different theme, and at once one sees how the pieces fall into place. What might have been thought of as lone wolves – Clough Williams-Ellis creating the  Italianate charm of Portmeirion in Snowdonia, or H.S.Goodhart Rendel producing Art Deco-meets-Medieval Gothic for his Hay’s Wharf building (Olaf House) on the Thames – actually hunted in packs. With varying degrees of success, architects of all stripes were trying to find a language appropriate to the new circumstances in which Britain found herself after the First World War.

The opening chapter, which is about war memorials, leaves us in no doubt as to the scale of the trauma inflicted by that catastrophe. Thousands were built by communities and institutions needing a common focus for their grief. They took many forms, with the cross – an obvious symbol of sacrifice – being the most common; one might have expected calvaries, a cross bearing the figure of Christ, to have been rejected as Roman Catholic, but as the author observes, many servicemen must have known them from wayside shrines in France and Belgium. The great Lutyens preferred abstract geometry: for him, that had a profound significance in itself – a way of approaching the divine. Besides he was conscious, not being a great churchgoer himself, that the huge forces deployed by the British Empire in the conflict contained not only Christians but Jews, Hindus, atheists and others outside the fold of the Church.

A whole-page photograph shows the Cambridge war memorial, on which a young soldier strides home from the front, helmet at the end of one outstretched arm, his rifle, which he has on his shoulder, garlanded with a wreath. His eyes are turned to the railway station, looking for his comrades who will never come home. Or so I remember being told. Created by Robert Tait McKenzie, a Canadian doctor and sculptor, who had enlisted with the Royal Medical Corps in 1915 and had a passion for physical fitness, the sculpture was originally to have been larger and located somewhere else. But the budget did not run to it, and the present version, on a reduced scale, was erected at the end of Station Road. The eloquent glance may have been a coincidence.

After the War, reconstruction was fuelled by finance. This can be seen from the Bank of England, enlarged by Herbert Baker who destroyed many of Sir John Soane’s wonderful top-lit interiors in the process. Most of the big five clearing banks needed new headquarters nearby. (By the time they were opened, the Depression had set in, and spaces that had been intended to lush up prosperous clients were instead the scene of feverish discussions to stop them going bust.) Across the land, hundreds of new branch banks were opened to replace the premises of the small Victorian banks that had been amalgamated to form behemoths such as the Midland, the biggest bank in the world. They were usually in a Georgian style that suggested permanence and stability. City premises, along with other institutions, such as Lloyd’s of London, favoured what Stamp calls the Grand Manner, a bosomy late blossoming of Edwardian Baroque. As ever, Lutyens rose above his peers, but the cerebral Mannerism of his Midland Bank head office on Poultry proved a dead end. Perhaps it was incapable of development; certainly nobody wanted it after the Second World War.

Swedish Grace, showing the influence of Stockholm Town Hall, was longer lived. Dinosaurs such as Reginald Blomfield, who rebuilt Nash’s Regent Street quadrant, loathed the cosmopolitanism, but it explains the attenuated Classicism of Norwich City Hall; the elliptical arches of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Hall in Vincent Square by Easton and Robertson were deliberately modelled on Congress Hall in Gothenburg. Other influences are traced to Germany, which is surprising given the hatred in which the country was held after the war. Housing schemes, cinemas and churches were all affected. As Stamp notes, the 29-year-old winner of the international competition to build a new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford upon Avon, Elizabeth Scott, was sent on a tour of modern theatres in Germany by the theatre’s director. The architect Maxwell Fry describes the dismay felt at the opening ceremony in 1932: ‘no doubt timber-framing was expected, and the new brick was very red’. The crowds need not have despaired. There was plenty of half-timbering elsewhere in the country, of the kind already mocked by E.F.Benson in 1920, when he published his comic masterpiece Queen Lucia. Opposing such visions of Merrie England was the example of America, evident in both the monumentalism of Charles Holden’s Senate House for London University and the Art Deco factories of the Great West Road. At Battersea Power Station and some churches, Stamp’s hero, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, cousin of Elizabeth Scott, could display traits from both Art Deco and New York, while remaining formidably Gothic in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. His extraordinary Memorial Chapel for Charterhouse School at Godalming, austere and numinous, was inspired by Albi.

In 1920 Lutyens was commissioned to build the headquarters of an oil company on Finsbury Circus: Stamp applauds it as solving ‘the problem of the modern commercial building with conspicuous aesthetic success’. Not himself driving a car, the author perhaps underplays other aspects of the motor age. There is no discussion of petrol stations, for example, the first of which appeared at Aldermaston, in Berkshire, also in 1920. It not only heralded the end of the era when motorists could only be sure of replenishing their tanks by carrying their own supplies of petrol in cans. It formed part of a landscape of motoring that would change the British countryside and its villages forever. Advertising hoardings, ‘traffic control robots’ (as traffic lights were first called), kerb stones, road-widening, white lines, yellow lines, bypasses – such things were to become familiar as part of the furniture of an England seen through the car windscreen. The tentacles of suburbia reached out along the new trunk roads, lined with semi-detached houses in brick or pebbledash. As car ownership became general, the old, compact way of building, seen in the traditional village, was replaced by the lower density development of the suburban estate. Meanwhile, pretty villages became difficult to reach in the 1920s because of traffic jams on the South Downs.

With understandable partisanship, Hill describes her late husband as ‘the most important and influential architectural historian and critic of his generation’. There are other candidates for the honours: born in the same decade, the 1940s, Marcus Binney, the founder of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, has been no slouch as a campaigner, while the late Professor David Watkin wrote widely as well as teaching at Cambridge. Stamp preferred the 100-metres dash of journalism to the marathon of writing academic books. Spell-binding as a lecturer and indefatigable in leading tours for the Victorian and Twentieth Century societies, he never produced the big book that his friends had hoped of him; his best was a relatively short but passionate study of the Thiepval Arch, remembering the 70,000 British and South African troops whose bodies were never recovered from the Somme. This posthumous volume is the masterpiece he did not publish in his lifetime. It puts his memory on a new plane.


Clive Aslet