A mist of disenchantment with modern architecture now shrouds England. In the early 1960s it was different. Then visitors from the Continent streamed across the Channel to declare that in school building the British led the world. A new generation of architects had broken the stranglehold of Sir Albert Richardson and the old gang who for so long had stifled their initiatives, and had seized the fabulous opportunities which the swelling budgets of government departments and the local authorities provided. Oxford and Cambridge entered an age of building unsurpassed even by the mid-Victorian age: practically every architect of note in the new movement has a building to his name there. The creation of the new universities presented even more glittering prizes for the profession. So did the vast building programs for new towns or for rehousing those who lived in slums. The property boom financed hundreds of new office blocks and the architectural profession exuded self-confidence.
Then the tide turned. The cutback in public expenditure has been so severe that architects now search for work in the OPEC countries; the property boom is over. Few private firms now make sufficient profits to convert them into prestige head office buildings. As the opportunities have vanished, the tale of past disasters grows in length. These buildings, masterpieces of planning and inspired by the gospel of functionalism, so often don’t function. At the National Theatre the acoustics of the two main auditoriums disappoint, and virtually none of the labor-saving machinery works, so that most operations have to be done by a labor force which the design of the theater was intended to eliminate. This is only the most notorious of public scandals.
To what extent the disasters are caused by the architects themselves or by the low technical standards of the British building industry is a matter of opinion. But certainly the influence of accountants has also been deplorable. In nothing have government departments been more effective than in enforcing cost-effectiveness. So remorseless has been their scrutiny, so intent are they to get a bigger bang for the buck, so determined to employ norms to regulate the size and cost of hospital wards, laboratories, school rooms, family housing units, and canteens, that low-ceilinged boxes of buildings imprison those who work in them. Last-minute cuts imposed by further revisions of the budget compel architects to make hasty revisions, use shoddier materials, and cut corners, with the result that after a few years the buildings fall apart and maintenance costs enrage those who live in them.
Not that private enterprise has been all that much better. The magnates of the City of London after the war used their accountants like bloodhounds and set the worst of examples in the despicable office blocks they rushed to erect on an incomparable site—the bomb-devastated wastes surrounding St. Paul’s.
But the resentment against modern architects goes even further. They and the planners are accused of wrecking city centers, engulfing what were living communities in a sea of concrete, and imprisoning in horrible tower blocks thousands of working-class families. (This is somewhat hard on Leslie Martin, the most influential architectural teacher, who has for years pointed out that a far more effective use of a plot ratio can be devised than tower blocks.)
Yet how is it that this hardworking modern movement, dedicated to discovering through research how human beings actually live and work, and then through design to translating this information into buildings that should make life more pleasant and less frustrating, is now accused—singular paradox—of failure to care about human beings, of monstrous egoism, of insensitivity to eye, ear, and touch, of willful disregard for all those warm familial relationships which stimulate gregariousness, affection, and friendliness? The movement declared that what went on inside a building should dictate its shape: “form follows function.” As a result concepts such as façade, elevation, proportion, and elegance have vanished from architectural vocabulary. The movement also declared that the exterior and interior of a building were honest only if they conformed to the materials used in the construction. To disguise concrete or introduce ornament to please the eye was dishonorable.
The hatred of ornament, the admission of only severe and incomprehensible examples of sculpture as adornment, confirmed the suspicion which crept over the public that their architects were inhumane. As a result when a building is completed it evokes protest and mutterings from the very people who yesterday were chortling when they saw the model.
The overwhelming importance attached by architects to function may have enabled them to design economical and efficient apartments but swept from their minds the need to design an attractive apartment house and even more to place such apartments in a setting of shops and pubs which acknowledged that people like to meet, gossip, and relax. People suddenly began to argue that the old cockroach-infested slum streets of unsanitary houses had more humanity to them than the sanitized tower block.
The conservationists opened people’s eyes and fanned their discontent. As a result there is now a determination in central government as well as in community committees to preserve almost any building over fifty years old. Public money is now being spent on conservation and conversion rather than on demolition. But the rage against the architect, the developer, and the landlord has now reached a point where myriad regulations designed to conserve buildings, preserve communities, and protect tenants have brought building of any kind to a halt in many city and county areas.
No one has done more to open people’s eyes than the engaging, shrewd, and uninhibited publicist, England’s poet Laureate, John Betjeman. On television and in talks he describes the blankness of his despair at the sight of concrete and cladding, and the surge of his heart at the sight of the very Victorian and neo-Georgian architecture which it has been the fashion so long to despise. And now comes a book celebrating the style, dearly loved and praised by Betjeman in his poems, which during the Thirties Osbert Lancaster satirically called Pont Street Dutch. It has been written by an author who, since the departure of Reyner Banham for Buffalo, is establishing himself as the leading architectural scholar in England.
Six years ago Mark Girouard made his name by his book on the Victorian country house.* For him it was the product of new technologies in heating, glass manufacture, and building, but still more of the style of the upper classes and the social relationships of those who lived in the country house. His new book is more a study in the history of ideas. The Queen Anne revival which flourished between 1860 and 1900 was an aesthetic experiment pioneered by the late Victorian intelligentsia, a by-product of the Pre-Raphaelites. The revival was a demand, Girouard thinks, to move away from ponderous stucco buildings or over-elaborate Gothic structures and to reflect what the most famous representative of this class, Matthew Arnold, called “sweetness and light.”
Indeed just as Arnold frowned on dogmatic religion, puritanism, and system-mongering, the new architects denied that one particular style of architecture alone was sacrosanct. They had had enough of Gothic Revival doctrinaires. Japan, classical Greece, Italian Renaissance, and above all Queen Anne made a potpourri, all the more comforting because it suggested that one good thing can be reconciled with all other good things. Indeed to speak of it as a style is to do an injury to its inventors, because their whole object was to abolish “style.” In 1863 one of the protagonists wrote to another, “Have you seen Viollet-le-Duc’s last volume…. I think the theory well nigh right—that the architect painter must have no religion but poetry: he must not care for dogmas, he must have no bias.” When Philip Webb had to submit his design for a house to the criticism of two champions of Gothic, he commented on their report, “That Messrs Salvin and Wyatt are ‘unable to discover what actual style or period of architecture’ I have used, I take to be a sincere compliment.”
The movement began in the bosom of the Pre-Raphaelites. Philip Webb was their friend and for once a group of architects found inspiration in the company of painters and poets such as Swinburne—architects such as Richard Norman Shaw, the younger Gilbert Scott, E.R. Robson, G.F. Bodley, and Thomas Jackson all believing in art for art’s sake and distrusting the grand manner, toughness, and theorizing. But they also wanted to be specifically English—and this meant going back in time, beyond the dreary Georgian housing of Gower Street to the seventeenth century for decoration and buildings with movement in their design, and above all to red brick pediments, tipped roofs, gables, fanlights, and weather boarding.
As early as 1862 Queen Anne began to be mentioned by the group as a name to convey their purpose. Ten years later, reinforced by J.J. Stevenson and Basil Champneys, the new style was booming. No longer was it confined to individual houses: there was an infirmary near Durham, Wakefield Town Hall in Yorkshire, Newnham College at Cambridge, a museum at Harrow School, and commercial buildings in the City, the School Board on the Embankment in London. Above all the style dominated Cadogan Square, the Bedford Park estate, and Tite Street in Chelsea where Whistler, Sargent, Sickert, and Wilde lived.
What gave these buildings their singularity? In the first place the Queen Anne movement was the invention of the aesthetes. Its originality and diversity came from the contact the leading architects had with the studios of Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, and Whistler, with Rossetti, William Morris, and the Chelsea Bohemians, many of them forgotten figures whom Girouard brings back to life. The “greenery-yallery” of the Grosvenor Gallery found itself reproduced in the carvings of sunflowers on the exteriors, and in the tiled fireplaces of the interiors, which were meant to reflect the artistic temperament of the owners. Each room might have a period theme, Moorish or Jacobean, the decoration might be Japanese prints and fans, blue and white china, Persian carpets, Chelsea porcelain, and asymmetrical furniture which nevertheless reflected the style of Sheraton in its lightness. Bright colors, magenta or mauve, were out; grays and bluish-greens were in.
A carefully arranged clutter of objects filling every nook and cranny—and the style aimed at creating nooks and crannies at every turn—was intended to delight the eye and interest the mind. Webb designed glass, Godwin wallpaper, Adams fittings, Jeckyll metalwork, and Webb, Bodley, Collcutt, and Robson designed furniture. The furniture stood on spindly legs, and deliberately mixed features of all periods and lands. Iron and brass work entered the home. So did picture books. The children’s books of Kate Green-away and Walter Crane created a world of Cinderellas and Little Pigs who all lived in Queen Anne houses embellished with Queen Anne furnishings. There were even Queen Anne gardens, intended to be an affront to professional gardeners, with clipped hedges, topiaries, and old-fashioned flowers such as marigolds, hollyhocks, and lilies, and not a sign of calceolarias or begonias.
Who commissioned buildings in this architectural style? Certainly the well-to-do aesthetes were the first, but they were soon joined by redoubtable intellectuals such as Henry Sidgwick at Cambridge and another philosopher, T.H. Green, who had a Queen Anne house built for him in Oxford. But it was also the style for a new section of the middle class. The cultivated family who toured Italy, gave tennis parties and fancy dress balls, who spent summer holidays at the seaside, who were good humored, optimistic, tolerant, and adequately buttressed by dividends. For these people Gothic had become too muscular, massive, and earnest, and too debased by being taken up commercially. This new section of the middle class did not aspire to ape the ways or pretend to be the associates of the aristocracy or the magnates living in their heavy ornate homes. Their seaside houses bulged with bay windows, or a small gable tucked into one corner of a bigger gable, or with verandas. Their oriels and cupolas were gay and pretty, and they enlivened the new resorts such as Westgate built to protect this class from the vulgarity into which the neighboring Margate had fallen. The tea shop was especially suitable for exhibiting that favorite feature of the style, the inglenook.
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another—Let us hold hands and look.”
She, such a very ordinary little woman; He, such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels In the teashop’s ingle-nook.
Betjeman’s love of this style, hated by the aesthetes of the Twenties who admired Georgian architecture and by the young architects of the Thirties who paid homage to Corbusier and the Bauhaus, reflects his admiration for architects who thought of lovers and children and designed retreats and features to please them, and who were not ashamed to put up club houses or the new golf courses near the holiday towns. Cromer on the Norfolk coast was the most famous example of a new pleasure town sporting gay, light houses of red brick with white wooden verandas and window frames. Oscar and Bosie played golf there. Locker-Lampson the poetaster (“I’m in love with Neighbour Nellie, / Though I know she’s only ten, / As for me I’m just a square-toes, / And the marriedest of men”) and the first Lord Battersea and his Rothschild wife both had houses built for them, the latter by Edwin Lutyens, whose best work was in Queen Anne, not the “high game,” as he called it, of classicism for which he later became famous. There were even Queen Anne pubs—territory already covered by Girouard in an agreeable study of these archetypal Victorian buildings—outnumbered however by the free libraries and coffee taverns of the movement to whom pubs were still gin palaces and brutish rather than cheerful.
Girouard concludes with a chapter on ” ‘Queen Anne’ in America,” which relates what Vincent Scully called the “Shingle Style” to its parallel in England. Desiring to escape from the wicked, frivolous city to the simplicities of life at Newport, high-minded New Englanders were well disposed to follow the Boston architect R.S. Peabody, who found ways of marrying the Colonial and the Queen Anne revivals. According to Girouard, a prolific Glasgow designer, Daniel Cottier, was influential in spreading the Queen Anne style in America through his sketches for furniture, stained glass, and decoration. But he points out that the differences between the two styles were perhaps more fundamental than the borrowings and exchange of ideas between the two movements. The Shingle Style had to plan houses which would be habitable in extremes of heat and cold. They also were bound to reflect a different social structure: there was not such a need to separate men from women, children from grownups, and family from servants.
This is a detailed, scholarly, and absorbing book, admirably written and illustrated. While it is partly a review of numerous buildings, some of them long since demolished, it is also full of social history. Girouard has an eye for a social as well as an architectural nuance. How well he distinguishes between the two Victorian women’s colleges at Cambridge: Girton was spartan, spare, everything geared to proving that women could compete intellectually on equal terms with men, the inmates urged to strengthen their moral fiber by living in a building in the Tudor Gothic style of Waterhouse. Newnham, built by Sidgwick’s friend Champneys, was more easygoing, only a few of its students in the early years reading for honors. The students’ rooms were papered with Morris wallpaper; the principal Miss Clough insisted the corridors should have windows at both ends for cheerfulness, and when she could find nothing to say to a girl passing down the corridor kissed her instead.
Girouard does not have the space to explore all the aspects of the eighteenth-century revival in the Seventies. Among those agnostics and dons who were among the protagonists of the architectural movement, there were some who were reviving eighteenth-century literature. In 1876 Leslie Stephen published History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century and, as editor of the Cornhill, articles on most of the important eighteenth-century poets and novelists. His brother Fitzjames covered much the same ground in the Scholarly Review, while John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly, the new rationalist periodical, published in the 1870s works on Voltaire and several of the Encyclopedists. The century condemned to perdition by Carlyle emerged from limbo.
This revival of eighteenth-century thought was, like the architectural revival, an invocation to the nineteenth. In 1879 William Stebbing wrote, “It is the drama of the nineteenth century which is being rehearsed in the eighteenth. The players do not know their parts; the prompter’s voice breaks the unity of the action; there is no audience but the company of the theater; and the author seems not to have decided upon the dénouement.” The same year, Grant Allen reviewing a book by Robert Louis Stevenson spoke of “the Queen Anne revival…, a phase of that reaction which is everywhere making itself felt against the familiar solidity of the age wherein we live.” The Victorian scholar John Bicknell, who has pursued this trail, concludes that men returned to the eighteenth century not so much to reassess it as to see where their own culture had taken a wrong turning. They wanted to learn from their ancestors’ “mistakes” so as to get back upon the path of virtue.
In this Mark Girouard’s message? He closes his book by saying that irritating and smug as the Queen Anne movement could be, it responded to different moods, quaint at Bedford Park, dainty at Newnham, sensible in the Board Schools, and flashy in the pubs. The lesson for our times, he thinks, is that architects should not isolate themselves within their profession. Thomas Jackson was talking sense when he wrote, “Henceforth then…let us have artists.” Certainly architects and painters do not live in each other’s pockets in England today. It is true that Leslie Martin has been an exception: he is a friend of Ben Nicholson and had links with the Constructivists. Basil Spence collaborated with John Piper and Graham Sutherland in the Gesamtkunstwerk which became Coventry Cathedral. But sculpture does not flow from the design of the modern English building; as in the case of Epstein’s work after the war, it is stuck onto the fabric or is plonked in a piazza. In one university which has an art school, a history of art department, and a school of architecture and planning within five hundred yards of one another, the influence of one upon the other, or even the va et vient among the three, is virtually nonexistent. Some architects choose the furnishings and fittings for their buildings, but that is hardly the same as working and living with artists.
Girouard is telling us that architects have ceased to think or feel like artists. For years they have been badgered to identify with engineers. It is inconceivable that one would hear a building today described as pretty or cosy or graceful; or that it would be praised for being decorative or ornamented. Plotratios, the technology of materials, heating systems, acoustics, lighting, circulation problems consume architects’ time; and their sensitivity too. The pocket calculator replaces the eye. Does aesthetic sense in the end atrophy if it is desiccated by the continual use of this type of programmed reasoning? Is it replaced by what Betjeman called the Planster’s Vision?
I would be entirely convinced by this clever book did I not retain at the end of it my preference for Victorian stucco and regard the area of Cadogan Square and Pont Street as one of the most hideous in London. But certainly architectural vision today is not inspired by sweetness and light. Mark Girouard was right to choose this phrase as the title to his book and his attributions of buildings are so complete and voluminous that when he misses a trick in attributing the phrase it is mildly surprising. In fact the phrase is as Queen Anne as any of his buildings. “The two noblest of things,…sweetness and light,” wrote Swift when praising the Ancients in The Battle of the Books. But it seems dubious we shall see any return to the Ancients in architecture. The accountants will never allow it.
February 23, 1978