Modern architecture came to Britain from the Continent in the 1930s by way of black and white illustrations and publications. These were followed by architects who were refugees many of them Jewish, from Hitler’s pre-war Germany.
They transformed our British architecture.
Modernism could be considered as an equilateral triangle with a different factor at each apex.
At one apex: Modern Art, where the ideas came from.
At another apex: Technology, using new materials such as reinforced concrete.
At the third apex: Society, with the idea to improve the lot of ‘everyman’.
The philosophy was to introduce good mass housing and health care.
In 1930s Britain the architectural profession was quite isolated. Most architects were from the upper classes or had been to minor public schools. They tended to be somewhat anti-Semitic and xenophobic and did not really welcome the Continental influx.
At that time domestic architecture was of the traditional Gothic style and civic architecture of the ‘stripped down’ style signified by Sheffield’s Graves Art Gallery.
The City Hall (1932, by Vincent Harris) was of similar style (reinforced concrete concealed in ashlar) with some neo-classical additions like the front portico with columns.
Other civic buildings (Leeds City Hall, Norwich Town Hall) were based on classical style with no sign of modernism. Liverpool Cathedral was designed by Lutyens but was stopped by war in 1939 so only the crypt was built.
Modernism in Britain probably was introduced by Bertold Lubetkin, who set up a company to build zoos. His first commission was the Gorilla House at London Zoo.
He used clear geometric shapes like semi-circles and the new technology of reinforced concrete. This system was also used the build the Penguin Pool, which had spiral ramps that were only possible if the new materials were used.
Lubetkin designed a building for Whipsnade Zoo, with concrete geometric drum-shaped spaces joined by a concrete rectangular building, that was nothing like the old Gothic style.
Lubetkin was greatly influenced by the master of modernism Le Corbusier, who stated the a building should fulfil five principles:
1. It should be elevated on columns
2. Its facade should be free
3. It should have strip windows
4. It should have roof terraces
5. It should be open plan
Reinforced concrete liberated architects because now any shape was allowed. They were not constrained by the maximum length of timber spans or any other previous limitation.
Lubetkin’s finest work was flats at Highgate that were praised by Le Corbusier.
They had reinforced concrete walls and floors and in-situ under-floor heating.
A clever design allowed the concrete shuttering to be reused as each floor was built onto the one below.
In 1934 the architectural establishment was very hostile to foreign architects and would not allow them to open their own businesses. They had to be in partnership with resident architects.
In many areas where the new Modernism buildings were being built there was much opposition from planners, councils and local residents. They said that the buildings were inappropriate for the neighbourhood, but some architects had married into Society and were well-connected or rich so their buildings went up.
A competition was held to design a new Bexhill Pavilion that was won by Eric Mendelson.
The Pavilion was built in reinforced concrete
Many architects now began designing in the Modern style but made rather poor copies of the best designs by the immigrant Continental architects.
Many large companies commissioned new buildings and Modernism became popular.
Paul Jones building in Sloan Square
Daily Express buildings in London, Glasgow and Manchester (covered in black vitreolyte)
Boots the Chemist needed a sophisticated Modernist building to display its modern attitude
London Underground had new stations at Hangar Lane and Arnos Grove.
The Modernist movement was a sort of crusade in post-war Britain to try to overcome the depression caused by the war.
Unfortunately the buildings were not good in performance – they failed technically.
The flat roofs leaked, the metal window frames were not galvanised so they rusted and cracked the glass, the large areas of glass in the windows caused major heat loss in cold weather and caused over-heating in summer.
As one famous architect was quoted as saying, “Show me a flat roof and I’ll show you a bucket”.
[A very interesting talk about which I knew very little and it was beautifully illustrated by many excellent photographs.]