British architecture in the 21st century has an almost unrivalled reputation around the world for daring, innovation, creativity and flair.
From Beijing to New York and Doha to Mumbai, British architects and British expertise are playing a major role in redefining the world's cities and creating extraordinary buildings. The names of Rogers, Foster, Grimshaw, Farrell, Hopkins and others feature prominently on the global stage, but why? Where has this come from?
James Cubitt University of Libya
In the first half of the twentieth century, while there was a revolutionary movement in European and American architecture based on new technologies and new materials, in Britain, the dominant form of building continued to be influenced by classical and vernacular traditions. As an imperial power Britain took these styles to all corners of its Empire, but it was an approach to building out of step with a changing world.
So how did a nation that relinquished its imperial role on the world stage adapt to the new world order after the Second World War? How did a nation become, in the second half of the century, such a key player in shaping modern architecture and design abroad? What did British architects do to capture the attention of so many around the world?
Using the RIBA's unique collections and material from architectural practices, 'The Brits Who Built The Modern World' tells a global story of British architecture between 1950 and 2012, inspired by the BBC series .
View of Abadan Airport, Iran, 1960. Brian Colquhoun & Partners. Beginning life as military airstrip in World War II, the airport, like many in the region, was rebuilt for commercial services to meet the demands of emerging international business concerns. In this casr that derived from nearby oil fields.
The Modern Era
During the early post war years the world was changing dramatically. Old certainties and even older Empires were disappearing. With the independence of its former colonies and America’s now established status as the world’s super power, Britain’s imperial status was in conflict with a new age. Expectations and attitudes were shifting and the world was in the grip of a massive drive to modernise.
Kowloon Station, Hong Kong, 1998-2002. Farrels. Represented 'the tip of the iceburg'
Library at the University College, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1955. Fry, Drew & partners. Many young British architects first worked abroad in the former British Empire. Buildings were completed in a style that - inspired by the climate - quickly became known as 'Typical Modernism'
Main entrance of King Faisal Conference Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1973. Trevor Dannat & Partners. The Outcome of a limited international competition of 1966, the centre was part of a strategy to bring new activity to the capital city
Fuelled by a consumer boom, goods and services were being exchanged in ever greater numbers, and with the advent of the Jet aircraft once far off places could now be reached in hours instead of days or weeks. The world was shrinking and ideas were spreading. For architecture, it was the dawn of a new and progressive time.
Heavily influenced by early modern masters such as Le Corbusier and by ideas from Scandinavia and mainland Europe, British architects like others around the world adopted modernism as a means to construct a forward looking national story. For other nations, architecture was employed to demonstrate a world view and to stake their claim as international contenders. Ambitious, self-determined- and keen to catch up – emerging states imported skills and expertise from across the world.
Buck,inster Fuller, 1968.
During this time the horizons of British architects changed. For those at home there was a country to rebuild, while for those working outside the UK there were few guarantees. Architects were now part of an emerging competitive global marketplace. Working in far off lands, architects extended a modern style and methods to new audiences.
1. A New Narrative at Home
After the war, a new and convincing British story was essential in winning over hearts and minds. In 1951, the government produced Festival of Britain offered ration weary Britons a glimpse of a better future through new architecture, design and daring feats of engineering. It had a huge influence on British society, kick starting a process of state-led reconstruction and renewal across the UK.
2. Getting Out there
British architects abroad in the post war years catered for a world that was skilling up and speeding up. Education provision was a key first step in transforming economies with many new universities and colleges established to cater for growing populations. At the same time an entirely new landscape of airports, offices, hotels and conference centres emerged in response to the demands and expectations of heads of state and an increasingly global business traveller.