Although modern materials such as plastics, aluminium, glass and super strong steel were now common, they were largely ignored. Instead concrete, brick and plaster continued to dominate building design.
Despite the declaration by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s that the UK was "burning with the white heat of technology" building design was too often following lessons in shape and form that had been established at least three decades before.
There was a crisis of confidence in architecture and it seemed that the great adventure in modernism that had swept the globe was losing its momentum.
Responding to this new mood and - by the 1970s - an increasingly challenging economic climate, an inter-connected group ushered in a new era of experimentation in the UK that they would in time take out into the world.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States of America came to dominate nearly all aspects of popular culture. For a younger generation in the UK images of its great cities, its consumer products, music and art left them spellbound. It was a place of potency, energy and modernity. Its universities attracted architectural talent from across the world and formed an essential part of what would become a trans-Atlantic exchange in ideas.
Eames House, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, 1950. Charles & Ray Earnes. The work of many modern American designers inspired an interest in new materials, structural simplicity and industrial techniques. By employing such methods construction could be speedier, cheaper and readily reproduced.
Born within a decade of each other, the generation that was to reshape British architecture came from a range of backgrounds and architectural experiences. Informed by travel and liberated by the creative environments of two prominent schools of architecture, Yale University in the USA and the Architectural Association in London, they shared many common concerns, heroes and influences. As friends, collaborators, colleagues and partners they completed their first projects in response to a new social and economic era.
Pop goes Architecture
Inspired by the possibilities of the consumer age and new methods of production, students and architects began speculating on a radical architecture for the future that could be ‘life enhancing’. Music and fashion at this time had undergone a revolution, why not in how buildings and entire cities were created? By adopting engineering techniques and considering new products developed elsewhere, architects were able to make a leap into thinking about totally new spaces to work, experience culture, socialise and play.
Prefabricated components for buildings were widespread in the 19th Century for creating spectacular glasshouses, train sheds, bridges and temporary structures. However, in the post war years the equivalent approach had gained a reputation for utility and meanness. Many now doubted whether prefabricated components were compatible with great architecture and buildings. Using new materials economically, architects demonstrated it was possible to create functional buildings with flair and elegance. Techniques and principles developed first for industry and one-off houses were slowly applied at a larger scale, achieving even greater drama and hinting at the shape of things to come.
Factory for Herman Miller Furniture Company, Bath, 1977. Farrell and Grimshaw Partnership. Built for the company that made famous many design innovations, such as the Eames Chair, this building employed a lightweight cladding design to create a modern and innovative exterior. In 2013 it was Grade II listed.
The Shock of the New
In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s a strange and unexpected thing happened to British architecture – it became the most talked about in the world. At a time of massive economic upheaval in the UK, a series of projects were completed at home and abroad that caught the world’s attention – transforming the reputations of their creators in the process.
Established international figures were joined by a new generation of architects whose distinct approach caused shock waves and ignited often heated debate. It was a period of profound change. Reaction against the anonymous tower blocks of an earlier era was pushing architecture in a variety of directions. Advocates of a radical modern architecture were matched by those who favoured a return to traditional forms.
Two style labels entered the architectural vocabulary and became labels that defined the era – ‘High-Tech’ and ‘Post-Modern’. Advancing experimental ideas and working in locations as diverse as America, Europe and the Far East, British architects carved out a new more wide ranging identity for modern architecture with 'High-Tech' becoming the defining international style of the late 20th Century.
After decades of looking outwards and importing ideas from America, Scandinavia and mainland Europe, British architects had reached a point where having absorbed the lessons of others – they in turn became the innovators, exporting a confident new architecture abroad. The ‘Brits’ had come of age.
By the late 1970s ‘High Tech’ was a firm part of how architecture was described. Sometimes referred to as ‘structural expressionism’ or the ‘industrial style’ the completion of two influential projects in Paris and Hong Kong catapulted it into the world’s consciousness. High-tech architecture was characterised by the use of high performance materials, the expression of undisguised structural elements and the celebration of everyday technical and functional components. It was an approach that saw air ducts, ventilation and service cores, alongside steel trusses and cross-braces, become part of the articulation and visual drama of a building.
Nueue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany, 1977-1984. James Stirling.
A Global Style Debate
By the 1980s, architecture abroad came to reflect the many style debates in the UK. The world was shifting again and architectural shape and form responded to circumstances and context. In these years a 'Modernist' look continued in many places, but it was ‘Post Modernism’ that captured the mood of the times, crossing over into graphic design, film and fashion. Its looser approach was comfortable with historical references and jumped between traditional and modern technologies. But ‘PoMo’ as it was called, was a short lived style.