Architecture - The return of classicism
Cast aside by Modernists for much of the 20th century, Classicism
has a comeback of sorts, with an excellent new book reappraising
architecture partnerships and a recent exhibition at one of the very
institutions that so derided the style.
Gavin Stamp, Saturday, 26th June 2010
last month marked the centenary of two great modern English Cathedrals. The Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, the neo-Byzantine masterpiece of John Francis Bentley, was consecrated on 28 June 1910. The very next day saw the consecration of the
first phase of the colossal Anglican cathedral in Liverpool. The competition had been won seven years earlier by Giles Gilbert Scott at the age of only 22. For this first portion, the Lady Chapel, however, Scott had been obliged to collaborate with the elderly and conservative G.F. Bodley. But Bodley died in 1907 and Scott transformed his design into a more monumental and original conception of Gothic. His masterpiece in red Runcorn sandstone would slowly rise until completion in 1978.
These two buildings, so different in style,
would dominate church architecture in Britain
for the first half of the 20th century. Bentley’s round-arched interpretation of the Byzantine in elaborate brickwork would inspire many smaller
and simpler churches. Scott’s creative development
of Gothic demonstrated that the style was not inextricably linked with the Victorian age and
that the Gothic Revival still had life in it.
But in 1910 the dominant style in British architecture was in fact classical, in various sophisticated manifestations from Edwardian Baroque to neo-Regency. And it was the classical tradition that carried on vigorously during the inter-war decades, still the style of choice for civic and public buildings as well as for war memorials.
When, in the 1920s, the Roman Catholics of Liverpool decided to build something to challenge the Anglicans’ Gothic statement in that very sectarian city, it was to Edwin Lutyens (not a Catholic) they turned and he produced a design for a monumental domed classical cathedral (Fig. 2). Alas, only the crypt of this brilliant, breathtaking conception
was ever built, for everything changed after World War ii. Economic conditions as well as a change in taste ensured that Lutyens’ design would never be completed. The Modern Movement, imported from continental Europe and which had hitherto largely been confined to private houses, now became the dominant style so that, eventually, Lutyens’ crypt was covered by a somewhat crude and problematic version of Oscar Niemeyer’s circular concrete cathedral in Brasilia and stands today as the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (Fig. 1).
Most architectural movements tend to be dismissive of rivals, but the intolerance of the Modern Movement towards more traditional approaches to design cannot be overestimated. Alternative approaches were gradually suppressed
in the architectural schools; modern classical buildings were excluded from the pages of the architectural journals as modernists took over editorial control. In 1969, the influential couple Alison and Peter Smithson ensured that the centenary of Lutyens – surely Britain’s greatest 20th-century architect – was not marked by an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (riba). As recently as the 1980s, I could not interest any architectural paper in an article on the work of those unsung post-war practitioners of a progressive Classicism, Donald McMorran and George Whitby – the architects of the brilliant, harmonious extension to the Old Bailey (Fig. 3).
The classical tradition did carry on, of course (as did the Gothic, at Bury St Edmunds Cathedral
– see Apollo, May 2005) but in the hands of a beleaguered splinter group. The generation of architects who had continued it with some vigour during the 1950s and 1960s – Raymond Erith, McMorran & Whitby as well as the aged Vincent Harris – was extinct by the early 1970s. A younger generation continued, but it was timid and pedantic by comparison, looking, alas, to the safety of Palladio rather than the possibilities suggested by Lutyens. But perhaps this is not surprising, given that they were either ignored or abused by the modernist architectural establishment, with students who made traditional designs being failed by their modernist tutors in the schools. Architectural politics were so tiresomely polarised: Modernism was good; Classicism bad, reactionary, absurd (or the precise reverse, as far as the Prince of Wales camp was concerned). There was no dialogue, any more than there was proper architectural criticism, asking
if the traditional buildings by, for example, the much-vaunted Quinlan Terry were actually any
good as classical designs.
But now the situation has suddenly and surprisingly changed. An excellent book on McMorran & Whitby by Edward Denison has just been published by, of all people, riba Publishing,
in a series on 20th-century architects. And an ambitious exhibition of the work of ‘Three Classicists’ was actually mounted in May within
the (1930s modern classical) portal of riba’s headquarters at 66 Portland Place. It was extraordinary to hear the current riba president, Ruth Reed, open the exhibition by announcing that the institute welcomed all approaches and styles – for few, if any, of her recent predecessors would
have said such a thing. The three classicists in question – Ben Pentreath, George Saumarez Smith and Francis Terry (son of Quinlan) – are all young and not interested in the old polemical battles. As Ruth Guilding writes in her introduction to the
(very handsome) catalogue, ‘This exhibition turns over a new page. The three designers showing their work here are not the newest recruits to an underground movement smuggling their bombs
into the enemy camp; rather they are peaceniks, born into a time beyond the last generation’s embattled vulnerabilities. Their architecture does not sit in judgement or promise an idea of progress leading to Utopian perfection…’
Perhaps in some ways that is a pity. I do
wish they would look at Lutyens and McMorran
& Whitby rather than Palladio, for there are too many pretentious classical porticoes here. But
there are also designs for simple, sensible, well- proportioned houses. None of the three seems
to aspire to designing huge cathedrals, which is perhaps a relief. What the exhibition shows above
all is that Classicists can still draw – unlike many architects today. And it was the rejection of two
fine drawings – Terry’s for a Corinthian capital for Hanover Lodge and Saumarez Smith’s for an art gallery in New Bond Street (Fig. 4) – by the Royal Academy of Arts’ 2008 ‘Summer Exhibition’ that inspired this show. As Saumarez Smith explains, in frustration, ‘We said, let’s stage a Salon des Refusés. And the riba said, “Yes, you’re welcome.”’
In 1910, when the Classical, Gothic and Byzantine could happily co-exist, Britain was in political crisis, with the House of Lords blocking Asquith’s Liberal government’s proposals for constitutional reform. Exactly a century later,
Britain is again in political turmoil, with the first coalition government in decades and widespread demands for constitutional reform. And, curiously, this seems to be accompanied by a welcome return of that stylistic pluralism and tolerance surely so necessary for a healthy architectural culture.
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