Our collections

Twentieth century

Fashions in architecture fluctuated throughout the twentieth-century. A huge range of new building types and styles emerged in a relatively short span of time. And, as busily as we have built, we have destroyed. Our towns, cities and villages are a strange mix of new and old. Materials, scale and styles clash as never before. Regional architecture and a sense of place have long been threatened. The British Architectural Library is an invaluable tool with which we can discover and understand the ever-changing patterns of our built environments.

The building professions have undergone similar radical changes. Architects are no longer office trained; the architect’s education has become standardised, and centred in universities. Great numbers of students now enrol on architecture degree courses. Many are inspired by the emergence of the international superstar architect.

However, despite the cult following of famous names, the architect generally has lost power. Increasingly control lies with the planners and politicians. They can make or break a scheme. What’s more, since 1945 the dominant patron of construction schemes has been the government and its agencies. Architects need to tow the party line to be successful. Whilst all this has been going on, craftsmen have become marginalised. Skilled workers are few and far between. Building is now an industry, with national and international contractors. Perhaps this explains the dominance of DIY, and the growing number intent on realising their Grand Designs themselves?




The British Architectural Library constantly needs new shelving space thanks to the continued growth in architectural publications. Books on an every possible aspect of architecture are available. Many are learned studies, published thanks to the expansion in architecture, design and architectural history as academic subjects. These include the many hundreds of architectural journals, full of papers written by academics eager to prove their current research, and the exhibition catalogues, which grow in size and weight each year. Others have more general appeal. Biographies of celebrity architects constantly appear. Countless books are written in connection with television programmes, and the popularity of the ‘coffee table’ architectural book continues. Lavishly illustrated, many are works of art in themselves.

This phenomenon has been encouraged and matched by increasingly sophisticated cataloguing. Not only can individual texts be speedily located in libraries, but so can individual essays and papers. Similarly searches for individual buildings, places and architects are now possible.

The British Architectural Library takes a lead in the tremendous effort to keep up-to-date with the architectural presses, as can be seen in the online catalogue. Thanks to this, the many books stored in the library’s stacks can be easily found and retrieved and are there for all to enjoy. 

Browse the RIBA British Architectural Library catalogue (opens in a new window)

Drawings and archives

At the close of the twentieth century drawing skills appear to be of less and less importance to architecture. Computer software packages continue to advance in sophistication; designs in three-dimension are relatively easy to create on screen. Clients and architects can spatially experience proposed designs as never before. However, drawings are still a vital communication tool for architects and workers. And many of the initial ideas for some of the greatest twentieth-century buildings have begun with a few pencil strokes on a piece of paper. The RIBA Drawings Collection contains many such examples, such as the initial sketch for the De la Warr Pavilion staircase, Bexhill-on-Sea.

The RIBA’s collections include archives for many individual architects and practices, such as Ernst Goldfinger, Clough Williams-Ellis, Adams Holden and Pearson and SPAN. Amongst the most cherished are the letters of Sir Edwin Lutyens, great in number and filled with sketches of projects and people around him.

A considerable number of models of twentieth-century buildings have made their way into the collection. Some are on show in the Architecture Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum; others can be viewed on RIBApix. Often these are the best record of buildings now long demolished.

Browse the RIBA British Architectural Library catalogue (opens in a new window) 


The RIBA Photographs Collection is a wonderfully rich source with which we can study twentieth-century architecture and society. Significantly, there are archival collections of some of the leading architectural photographers of the century. The brilliant Eric de Mare, John Donat, John Maltby and Henk Snoek are well represented in this exhibition, and samples of their work can be found on RIBApix. Also notable are the Edwin Smith collections, subject of a recent book by Robert Elwall – Evocation of Place: the Photography of Edwin Smith, (2007). Smith’s topographical work features extensively in the online exhibition. It seems that there were few places in the British Isles he didn’t manage to capture with incisive eye for atmosphere, texture and detail. There are also the immense archives of the Architectural Press, some half a million in number, a huge resource for scholarship.

Browse the RIBA British Architectural Library catalogue (opens in a new window)


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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