From Tradition to Modernity — Professor Emeritus Peter Fawcett — 19th October 2015.

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.
Examples are:
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.]