From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, what are the influences and movements that have shaped the changing face of British architecture?
By Adrian Tinniswood
Last updated 2011-03-29
From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, what are the influences and movements that have shaped the changing face of British architecture?
Architecture is about evolution, not revolution. It used to be thought that once the Romans pulled out of Britain in the fifth century, their elegant villas, carefully-planned towns and engineering marvels like Hadrian's Wall simply fell into decay as British culture was plunged into the Dark Ages. It took the Norman Conquest of 1066 to bring back the light, and the Gothic cathedral-builders of the Middle Ages played an important part in the revival of British culture.
The great cathedrals and parish churches that lifted up their towers to heaven were acts of devotion in stone...
However, the truth is not as simple as that. Romano-British culture - and that included architecture along with language, religion, political organisation and the arts - survived long after the Roman withdrawal. And although the Anglo-Saxons had a sophisticated building style of their own, little survives to bear witness to their achievements as the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon buildings were made of wood.
Even so, the period between the Norman landing at Pevensey in 1066 and the day in 1485 when Richard III lost his horse and his head at Bosworth, ushering in the Tudors and the Early Modern period, marks a rare flowering of British building. And it is all the more remarkable because the underlying ethos of medieval architecture was 'fitness for purpose'. The great cathedrals and parish churches that lifted up their towers to heaven were not only acts of devotion in stone; they were also fiercely functional buildings. Castles served their particular purpose and their battlements and turrets were for use rather than ornament. The rambling manor houses of the later Middle Ages, however, were primarily homes, their owners achieving respect and maintaining status by their hospitality and good lordship rather than the grandeur of their buildings.
Fitness for purpose also characterised the homes of the poorer classes. Such people didn't matter very much to the ruling elite and so neither did their houses. These were dark, primitive structures of one or two rooms, usually with crude timber frames, low walls and thatched roofs. They weren't built to last. And they didn't.
White Tower, at the heart of the Tower of London, was begun by Bishop Gundulf in 1078 on the orders of William the Conqueror. The structure was completed in 1097, providing a colonial stronghold and a powerful symbol of Norman domination.
Durham Cathedral was begun by Bishop William de St Carilef in 1093 and completed about 1175. The choir was extended in the Gothic style between 1242 and 1280. Muscular pillars and round-headed arches make Durham one of the most imposing Norman buildings in England.
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, was probably begun in the 12th century, but was remodelled and adapted at various times right through to the 16th century. It was then carefully restored in the early 20th century. Haddon shows the quality which characterises the great medieval house, in which function dictates form.
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, spans the period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Tudors. Its foundation stone was laid in 1446 by Henry VI and the structure, with its lacy perpendicular fan-vaulting, was completed by 1515 during the reign of Henry VIII. The windows were installed in 1546-7.
In a sense, the buildings of the 16th century were also governed by fitness for purpose - only now, the purpose was very different. In domestic architecture, in particular, buildings were used to display status and wealth, as William Harrison noted in his Description of England (1577):
Each one desireth to set his house aloft on the hill, to be seen afar off, and cast forth his beams of stately and curious workmanship into every quarter of the country.
This stately and curious workmanship showed itself in various ways. A greater sense of security led to more outward-looking buildings, as opposed to the medieval arrangement where the need for defence created houses that faced inward onto a courtyard or series of courtyards. This allowed for much more in the way of exterior ornament. The rooms themselves tended to be bigger and lighter - as an expensive commodity, the use of great expanses of glass was in itself a statement of wealth. There was also a general move towards balanced and symmetrical exteriors with central entrances.
In spite of this building boom the Renaissance was generally slow to arrive in England...
In addition there was progress towards more stable and sophisticated houses for those lower down the social scale. Stone, and later brick, began to replace timber as the standard building material for the homes of farmers, tradespeople and artisans. To quote Harrison again:
Every man almost is a builder, and he that hath bought any small parcel of ground, be it never so little, will not be quiet till he have pulled down the old house (if any were there standing) and set up a new after his own device.
In spite of this building boom the Renaissance was generally slow to arrive in England, largely because Elizabeth's troublesome relations with Catholic Europe made the free exchange of ideas difficult. Craftsmen and pattern-books did come over from the Protestant Low Countries, but by and large our relative isolation from the European cultural mainstream led to a national style which was a bizarre though attractive mixture of Gothic and classical styles.
Hampton Court Palace (1515 onwards). The great house that Cardinal Wolsey began and then gave to Henry VIII in 1525, in a desperate attempt to stay in the King's favour, has undergone many changes since the 16th century. Christopher Wren rebuilt the south and east ranges for William and Mary between 1689 and 1694, and the Palace contains some remarkable Tudor work, notably Henry VIII's hammer-beamed Great Hall.
Longleat House, Wiltshire, which was completed in 1580, exemplifies the confidence of Tudor craftsmen in a society that was more stable than that of their medieval ancestors. It looks outwards rather than in on itself, whilst classical detailing such as the pilasters that flank the expanses of glass, and the roundels carved with busts of Roman emperors, show that Renaissance ideas were creeping slowly into Britain during the mid 16th century.
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (1591-97). This is the archetypal late-Elizabethan house: tall, compact and beautiful. It was designed, probably by Robert Smythson, for Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury who was better known as Bess of Hardwick. Her descendants, the Dukes of Devonshire, made Chatsworth their principal seat, and left Hardwick more or less unscathed. A remarkable survival.
Whilst Elizabethan houses in England concentrated on the conspicuous display of wealth, Scotland saw the building of castles and fortified houses continue well into the seventeenth century. In fact, fortification became a style in its own right, and the turrets and strongly vertical emphases of Scottish Baronial houses mark one of Scotland's most distinctive contributions to British architecture.
With the exception of Inigo Jones (1573-1652), whose confident handling of classical detail and proportion set him apart from all other architects of the period, most early 17th century buildings tended to take the innocent exuberance of late Tudor work one step further. Traditional planning was cloaked in the splendidly overblown ornament - the sort of details described at the time as 'a heap of craziness of decorations... very disgusting to see'.
But during the 1640s and 50s the Civil War and its aftermath sent many gentlemen and nobles to the Continent either to escape the fighting or, when the war was lost, to follow Charles II into exile. There they came into contact with French, Dutch and Italian architecture and, with Charles's restoration in 1660, there was a flurry of building activity as royalists reclaimed their property and built themselves houses reflecting the latest European trends.
The style is heavy and rich, sometimes overblown and melodramatic.
As the century wore on, this resolved itself into a passion for the Baroque grandeur which Louis XIV had turned into an instrument of statecraft at Versailles. Formal, geometrical and symmetrical planning meant that a great lord could sit in his dining chamber, at the physical as well as the metaphorical centre of his world, with suites of rooms radiating out in straight lines to either side. His gardens would reflect those lines in long, straight walks and avenues.
The British Baroque was a reassertion of authority, an expression of absolutist ideology by men who remembered a world turned upside down during the Civil War. The style is heavy and rich, sometimes overblown and melodramatic. The politics which underpin it are questionable, but its products are breathtaking.
The Queens House, Greenwich, was begun for Queen Anne between 1616 and 1619 and completed for Henrietta Maria between 1630 and 1635. Greenwich Hospital was built from 1696 onwards. The Queens House is by Inigo Jones and the Hospital is largely Christopher Wren's.
St Paul's Cathedral, London, (1675-1710) is not only one of the most perfect expressions of the English Baroque, but also one of the greatest buildings anywhere in England. It was designed by Wren to replace the old cathedral which had been devastated during the Fire of London in 1666.
Although built in the 18th century, the ideology behind Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire lies firmly in the 17th century. Conceived as a monumental homage to the Duke of Marlborough, whose victory over Louis XIV's army at Blenheim in Bavaria gives the palace its name, it was designed by John Vanbrugh and is the nearest thing Britain has to a Versailles
To the Whigs who came to power on the accession of George I in 1714, the Baroque was inextricably linked with the authoritarian rule of the Stuarts. A new style was needed for a new age, and the new ruling class, which aspired to build a civilisation that would rival that of ancient Rome, looked for a solution in antiquity.
Or so it thought. Actually, the solution was found in an antiquity which had been heavily re-interpreted by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80). Palladio's Four Books of Architecture methodically explored and reconstructed the buildings of ancient Rome. They also provided illustrations, in the form of its author's own designs for villas, palaces and churches, of a way in which the early Georgians might adapt those rules to create an architecture of the classical tradition - the yardstick by which all civilised activity was measured.
By the end of the 18th century, the idea of a single national style of architecture had had its day.
But architects soon found the Palladian search for an ideal architecture pointlessly limiting. Whilst the buildings of the ancients should 'serve as models which we should imitate, and as standards by which we ought to judge', a more eclectic approach was called for. In the words of the later 18th century's greatest architect, Robert Adam, 'Rules often cramp the genius and circumscribe the idea of the master'.
By the end of the 18th century, the idea of a single national style of architecture had had its day. Austere neo-classical masterpieces were still being produced; but so too were huge mock-abbeys, battlemented castles, picturesque sixteen-bedroomed cottages and even, as the 19th century dawned, oriental palaces such as John Nash's Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The Cult of Styles had arrived.
Loosely modelled on Palladio's Villa Capra, Lord Burlington's Chiswick House was one of the first shots fired in the war waged by the Georgians against the Baroque. In case anyone was slow to appreciate where Burlington's architectural allegiances lay, he had Michael Rysbrack design two statues to flank the entrance stair with Palladio on the left, and his earliest English disciple Inigo Jones on the right.
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (1758-77), is a high point of British neo-classicism. The Palladian layout had already been established when the up-and-coming Scottish architect Robert Adam was asked to take over the project in 1760 by the owner, Sir Nathaniel Curzon. The austere, delicate interiors, with their remarkably unified decoration, show Adam at the height of his powers. Kedleston, the Glory of Derbyshire, was one of the most consistently praised of all Georgian houses.
'I am going to build a little Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill', announced Horace Walpole in 1750. Over the next three decades Walpole transformed the uninteresting villa he had bought by the Thames at Twickenham into one of the landmarks of the Gothic Revival in Britain. Strawberry Hill aroused enormous interest - Walpole had to issue tickets to restrict the number of visitors coming to see it - and demonstrated that native medieval architecture could be every bit as valid as classicism.
In the early 19th century, the French Revolution was recent enough to provide an awful example of what might happen if the upper classes lost control, whilst Peterloo and demonstrations against the Six Acts in 1819 were a reminder that it could happen here. The building classes took refuge in a fictitious past, such as the Middle Ages of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) or the romantic Elizabethan style of Kenilworth (1821). The myth of Merry England, with its strictly ordered society and its chivalric code of values, had a strong appeal for a ruling elite which felt under threat from social and political unrest at home and abroad.
...reformers like John Ruskin and William Morris made a concerted effort to return to hand-crafted, pre-industrial manufacturing techniques.
The huge glass-and-iron Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, shows another strand to 19th century architecture - one which embraced new industrial processes. But it wasn't long before even this confidence in progress came to be regarded with suspicion. Mass production resulted in buildings and furnishings that were too perfect, as the individual craftsman no longer had a major role in their creation.
Railing against the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, reformers like John Ruskin and William Morris made a concerted effort to return to hand-crafted, pre-industrial manufacturing techniques. Morris's influence grew from the production of furniture and textiles, until by the 1880s a generation of principled young architects was following his call for good, honest construction.
The Houses of Parliament (Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, 1840-60) replaced the building destroyed by fire in 1834. A good example of the period's confused love affair with the past, it was summed up earlier this century as classic in inspiration, Gothic in detailing, and carried out with scrupulous adherence to the architectural detail of the Tudor period.
With its quiet, unassuming love for the vernacular of Kent and Sussex, and its rejection of Victorian pomposity, Philip Webb's Red House at Bexleyheath (1859-60) is the building which started the Arts and Crafts movement. It was originally designed for newly-weds William and Janey Morris.
Castell Coch, near Cardiff (1872-79), is a piece of inspired lunacy by William Burges, best known for his restoration of Cardiff Castle, an opium habit and the fact that he used to relax at home with a pet parrot perched on the shoulder of his hooded medieval robe. This reconstruction of a 13th century chieftain's stronghold - right down to the working portcullis - is scholarly, at least as far as the exterior is concerned. The interior is downright weird, combining High Victorian romanticism with Burges' own eclectic drawings from ancient British history, Moorish design and classical mythology.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art (1896-99, 1907-9) proves that there were a few dissenting voices raised against the Victorian trend to return to the past. Mackintosh was uncompromising in his rejection of historicism, and his buildings have more in common with the vertical geometry and sinuous curves of Art Nouveau work in France, Belgium and Austria. But his decadent approach to design met with hostility in Britain and, a few years after the School of Art was completed in 1909, he gave up architecture.
The most important trends in early 20th century architecture simply passed Britain by. Whilst Gropius was working on cold, hard expanses of glass, and Le Corbusier was experimenting with the use of reinforced concrete frames, we had staid establishment architects like Edwin Lutyens producing Neo-Georgian and Renaissance country houses for an outmoded landed class. In addition there were slightly batty architect-craftsmen, the heirs of William Morris, still trying to turn the clock back to before the Industrial Revolution by making chairs and spurning new technology. Only a handful of Modern Movement buildings of any real merit were produced here during the 1920s and 1930s, and most of these were the work of foreign architects such as Serge Chermayeff, Berthold Lubetkin and Erno Goldfinger who had settled in this country.
Local authorities, charged with the task of rebuilding city centres, became important patrons of architecture.
After the Second World War the situation began to change. The Modern Movement's belief in progress and the future struck a chord with the mood of post-war Britain and, as reconstruction began under Attlee's Labour government in 1945, there was a desperate need for cheap housing which could be produced quickly. The use of prefabricated elements, metal frames, concrete cladding and the absence of decoration - all of which had been embraced by Modernists abroad and viewed with suspicion by the British - were adopted to varying degrees for housing developments and schools. Local authorities, charged with the task of rebuilding city centres, became important patrons of architecture. This represented a shift away from the private individuals who had dominated the architectural scene for centuries.
Since the War it has been corporate bodies like these local authorities, together with national and multinational companies, and large educational institutions, which have dominated British architecture. By the late 1980s the Modern Movement, unfairly blamed for the social experiments implicit in high-rise housing, had lost out to irony and spectacle in the shape of post-modernism, with its cheerful borrowings from anywhere and any period. But now, in the new Millennium, even post-modernism is showing signs of age. What comes next? Post-post-modernism?
Cardiff's imposing Civic Centre is a vast complex including a City Hall and Law Courts by Lanchester & Richards, and the University College by W D Caroë. It was hailed as one of the most magnificent examples of civic planning in Britain but, in retrospect, its deeply conservative architecture also seems both arrogant and strangely out of touch with contemporary building in the rest of Europe.
The De le Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, is a superb expression of all that is best about the Modern Movement. Commissioned by Lord De La Warr, mayor of Bexhill, and built by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff between 1933 and 1936, it was an attempt to make Bexhill as attractive as exotic French and Italian resorts. It goes without saying that it failed, but the recent restoration of the Pavilion's clean, sweeping lines is a cause for national celebration.
The Royal Festival Hall (Sir Leslie Martin and the Architecture Department of the London County Council, 1951) is all that survives of the complex laid out on London's South Bank for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The festival buildings were important for the opportunity they afforded of presenting a showcase for good modern architecture and Martin's concert hall, while not exactly earth-shattering, is a timely reminder of what good festival architecture looks like.
Adrian Tinniswood is an author, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren, Visions of Power: Architecture and Ambition from Ancient Rome to Modern Paris and several books for the National Trust.
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