Twentieth Century

Twentieth century buildings

Detail of Skylon

It is difficult to sum up architecture in Britain in the 20th century. We are awash with buildings, and information about them: the exact opposite of the Middle Ages. Fashions have flitted faster than ever before, resulting in a myriad number of styles. New types of buildings have emerged and the scale of buildings and developments has become more varied than ever before: from fifty-storey skyscrapers to endless low-scale cul-de-sacs, with their scattered detached houses.

However, there are some dominant trends. Private patrons have become less important; this century witnessed the emergence of the Welfare State, with active, some might say intrusive government at local and national levels. Vast public buildings and developments dominate the centre of most cities and towns; in the suburbs and villages uniform buildings can be found throughout; and the planning authorities have standardised the appearance of private developments. This standardisation has been matched by formalisation of architectural education: architects follow the same curriculum, resulting in higher standards in education. The other obvious change has been the growing international nature of architecture: many British architects have found more success at home than abroad; buildings are no longer rooted to their locality, with ever more diverse materials used in their construction; and stylistically buildings look less ‘British’, beginning, arguably, with the invasion of the so-called International Modernism in the 1930s.

These rapid changes have resulted in the destruction of much historic architecture, changes to the building profession, and the rejection of traditional skills. Yet, conversely, the twentieth century has seen the rise of the conservation movement. Although begun in the 19th century, it is only in the 20th century that this movement gained mass appeal. The treatment of historic buildings has been varied: many have been rescued, only to be frozen in time; others have been imaginatively converted or incorporated into modern developments. The twentieth-century built environment, therefore, includes much more than shiny skyscrapers and shopping malls, as can be seen in the selection that follows.

Extracts from the exhibition

Garden city movement

Detail of Howard plan

Go down the garden path to discover the prototypes of modern housing estates.


Metroland art deco

Detail of Alexander cinema

Suburbs, stations and cinemas: discover the range of inter-war architecture of Metroland.


The arrival of Modernism

Homewood interior

Modernist monuments hit Britain’s shores. An unhappy invasion? You decide!




Building a new Britain

Detail of Keeling House

From prefabs, to tower blocks to the South Bank – witness the highs and lows of Welfare State architecture.

Onwards and upwards

Detail of Lloyds buulding

Check out London’s reinvention as Europe’s skyscraper capital from the Post Office Tower to Canary Wharf.


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.

Top of page