The arrival of Modernism


Detail of Saltdean Lido

Historically, British architecture has welcomed foreign styles. Many medieval builders wanted to be fashionable by using the latest French Gothic for their cathedrals. The Elizabethans were keen to employ Italian Renaissance details, especially in their tombs. The Georgians delighted in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as India and Egypt. And the Victorians were besotted with all things global, so much so that it is difficult to work out just where details are derived in their eclectic buildings.

It seems strange then that in the 1920s and 1930s there was such a slow reception to Modernist architecture, developed largely in Germany and France by the likes of Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Perhaps this reticence was due to historical circumstances. After the horrors of World War One, Britain turned its back from the continent, politically and culturally. It is also, no doubt, due to the popularity of Art Deco. The public and architects were captivated by the decorative effects of the style, the imaginative leaps that its interiors made possible, and the flexibility it offered. There were no rules to Art Deco.

Modernism, however, was altogether more serious. It demanded an observance of rules. Function, rather than form dominated. The decorative excesses of Art Deco were far from the chaste, well-proportioned exteriors and interiors of Modernist buildings. Art Deco desired effect, Modernism substance. Many early Modernist buildings were expensive to create; materials were honestly used, and finely crafted to achieve the desired finish. They were closer to their Arts and Crafts predecessors in this desire for quality and integrity of design. This is made obvious in the examples included here, especially the wonderful interiors of Patrick Gwynne’s Homewood (1938). A rare masterpiece of Modernism in this country, it rivals its continental cousins, and deserves to be better-known.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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