About Modernist Britain

The beginning of the twentieth century in Britain marked the start of a new century, but the closing years of the Victorian era. Two architectural styles were dominant at the time: Classical and Gothic architecture. Classical architecture is inspired by ancient Greece and Rome (a good example of Classical architecture is the Forum Romanum in Rome). Gothic architecture in Victorian Britain was not Gothic in its strictest sense, but a romanticised revival of the medieval style of Gothic architecture, popularised in medieval France (a good example of Gothic architecture is the cathedral Notre Dame de Paris). Examples of Victorian Classical architecture include Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire and of Victorian Gothic architecture include the former Midland Grand Hotel and St Pancras Station in London.

Over time the popularity of architectural styles will change and fresh styles begin, partly as a reaction to pre-existing styles. In this way styles such as the Arts and Crafts Movement became established in Britain. Originating in the latter half of the nineteenth century the Arts and Crafts Movement focussed on aesthetics and craftsmanship and was a reaction to increased mass production and a perceived decline in the decorative arts. A leading light of the movement was designer William Morris. Although inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement came from medieval design, it was a much simpler interpretation unlike the very severe Victorian Gothic style.

Classical, Gothic and Arts & Crafts architecture all drew influence from historic styles of architecture. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century the Art Nouveau movement broke this trend of looking back. Art Nouveau did, like the Arts and Crafts Movement, focus on high quality craftsmanship but it also looked for inspiration elsewhere. Art Nouveau drew inspiration from nature with curvilinear forms and design motifs based on stylised plants and flowers.

Modernism in Britain

British architecture of the early twentieth century, prior to the Great War, continued the late-Victorian architectural styles. It wasn't until after inter-war period, between the two World Wars, that Britain embraced Modernist architecture, a style which had evolved in Continental Europe. Modernism in its most general sense is a term that applies to all modern architecture of the twentieth century. A number of 'modern' styles emerged in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, and spread to Britain. The three main styles illustrated in this website are Art Deco, Streamlined Moderne and the International Style, although there are many different modern styles.

Often there is confusion about the 'design language' of buildings. No architectural style remains static and these styles evolved. In the execution of designs architects may have chosen characteristics of different movements, so blurring the boundaries between the different styles. A building may, for example, have elements that could be described as Art Deco, but overall the building is in the International Style. Also the term Art Deco is widely used as a 'catch-all' for all Modernist buildings, but it is important to try and make a distinction:

  • The Art Deco movement began in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century, although the term 'Art Deco' was applied to this style much later (the term is derived from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris during 1925). Art Deco design, like Art Nouveau, continued to emphasise design motifs inspired by plants and flowers, but discarded the flowing, sinuous lines. Other influences on Art Deco design include Ancient Egyptian art and design, following the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter.
  • Streamline Moderne was an evolution of Art Deco design. The movement dispensed with the more decorative elements in favour of simpler forms. Inspiration came from the streamlining used in automotive, shipbuilding and train design. Streamlining gave the designs of cars (such as the Chrysler Airflow), trains (such as the LMS Locomotive Duchess of Hamilton) and ships (such as the Normandie) energy and dynamism. This style was popularised in Britain, significantly by cinema chains including the Odeon Company.
  • In continental Europe the International Style (often referred to as Modernism) was a radical departure from previous architectural styles. It was adopted later in Britain. It rejected the excessive decoration and ornamentation of previous movements, instead adopting the idea that 'form follows function', that design is determined by purpose. Buildings in this style are characterised by straight lines and geometrical forms, with the use of metalwork, the extensive use of glass and cantilevered structural elements.

All these Modernist styles reflected advances in industry and engineering and used developments in construction and materials - the use of metals, glass and concrete - to revolutionise architectural design and produce some exceptional buildings.

Modernist buildings in Britain

These following examples of Modernist architecture demonstrate how disparate companies and organisations, keen to project a modern image, chose Modernist architectural styles to demonstrate their progressiveness. They also show how architects were able to adopt this new modern style and produce some truly exceptional buildings.

Art Deco

There are many examples of Art Deco buildings across Britain, many in London but also some significant, beautiful buildings in many smaller towns and cities. Although these buildings differ in scale and purpose they are fine illustrations of the Art Deco style.

Ideal House in central London, built for the American National Radiator Company is a commercial building illustrating the Art Deco style. The building was constructed between 1928 and 1929 of polished blocks of black granite, ornamented with enamel friezes and cornices in yellows, oranges, greens and gold.

The use of Egyptian-style motifs is illustrated by the Arcadia Works in London. The Arcadia Works was built between 1926 and 1928 for the Carreras Tobacco Company. At the official opening of the building the pavements were covered in sand, opera singers from a London staging of Verdi's opera Aida and actors in Ancient Egypt-style costumes performed, while chariot races were held on the street. The Hoover Factory at Perivale in West London is another commercial building with clear Egyptian influences. It was built for the American Hoover Company as a manufacturing base for the company's British vacuum cleaner production.

Outside of industry, the Art Deco style was adopted more widely. The British Broadcasting Corporation constructed Broadcasting House, Britain's first purpose-built broadcasting facility, in the Art Deco style.

The Art Deco style was also embraced by architects in the construction of houses and apartment buildings. Such buildings are often characterised by gemometric and curved forms, white-pained exteriors and cantilevered balconies. Examples include Pinner Court and Capel Gardens and Trinity Court in central London.

Streamlined Moderne

The Odeon company, arguably more than any other company in Britain brought the Streamlined Moderne style to the attention of towns and cities across the country. In the inter-war period cinema-going became increasingly popular amongst the British public. Entrepreneurs quickly set up local cinemas to cash in on this popularity. The more successful operators were able to quickly grow their business into a national circuit. The Odeon company, established by Oscar Deutsch, was one such successful chain and it grew to be one of Britain's leading cinema circuits, owning in excess of 250 cinemas prior to the Second World War.

The style perfectly reflected the modernity and vitality of the motion picture industry. The company commissioned the firm of Weedon Partnership to design its first cinema in Perry Barr, Birmingham and Streamlined Moderne soon became the in-house style for the Odeon chain.

No two cinemas were to the same design, resulting in arguably the largest contribution to Modernist architecture by a single company. Some of the finest examples of Odeon cinemas include the former Odeon Kingstanding and former Odeon Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, the Odeon Weston-super-Mare in the south-west and the former Odeon Newport in Wales.

Other cinema circuits also adopted the Streamlined Moderne style. In West London the Grosvenor Cinema Rayners Lane is another excellent example of this style.

The style was also adopted by other sectors, including industry. The former Daily Express Building in London was built between 1930 and 1932. The exterior is clad in black Vitrolite panels with chromium strips at the joints and the corners of the building are streamlined. The lobby features two plaster reliefs entitled 'Britain' and 'Empire' and is one of the most impressive and ornate Art Deco interior schemes in Britain.

Elsewhere in London the Streamlined Moderne style is widely seen across the London Underground network. In the 1920s London Transport's Managing Director Frank Pick commissioned architect Charles Holden to design seven stations for the Northern Line. Pick commissioned further stations from Holden, producing a succession of new underground stations. Holden drew inspiration from work seen in Europe by Gunnar Asplund and Willem Marinus Dudok. Holden's design was based around a 'brick box with a concrete lid', with variations such as adding a brick tower and varying the box-shape for a drum-shape. That description isn't meant to undermine Holden's work; many of his Underground stations are listed. Fine examples include Rayners Lane Station, Sudbury Hill Station, Sudbury Town Station and Eastcote Station.

International Style

One of the finest examples of the International Style in Britain is the Grade-I listed Isokon Building in Hampstead, London. The Isokon Building is a four storey block of thirty-four flats with two roof-top penthouses, designed by Wells Coates, and built between 1933 and 1934. Constructed of concrete and painted white, the use of strong, geometric lines and cantilevered elements is indicative of the International Style.

British seaside towns appear to have been particularly keen to adopt the International Style. Seaside towns experienced rapidly growing visitor numbers prior to the Second World War and in response built many buildings - including hotels and lidos - to take advantage of this growth. The style represented a new optimism in design; this modernity chimed with the ethos of these seaside towns and projected the modern image these towns were seeking to project. Fine examples of the International Style on the coast include Brighton's Grade-II* listed Embassy Court (also designed by Wells Coates), Marine Court at St Leonards-on-Sea and Saltdean Lido.

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