Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Between History, Criticism, and Wit: Texts and Images of English Modern Architecture (1933-36) *

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Between History, Criticism, and Wit: Texts and Images of English Modern Architecture (1933-36) *

Article excerpt


In the years between the two wars, Britain occupied a peculiar position in the history of architectural modernism, often remaining on its margins.1 In parallel, until the first three decades of the twentieth century, architectural history in Britain had been a discourse almost exclusively populated by amateurs and historically-minded architects, while its emergence as a discipline of trained and professional scholars only started to occur in the 1930s.2

This essay will examine and compare a small group of articles, books and pamphlets on English modern architecture produced by English architects, journalists, historians and critics, published in the mid-1930s. Their authors (John Betjeman, Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh, John N. Summerson, Clough Williams-Ellis, J. M Richards, P. Morton Shand, Serge Chermayeff, and Osbert Lancaster), were (with the exceptions of Williams-Ellis and Morton Shand) born in the first decade of the twentieth century and are all well-known figures of the interwar London architectural scene whose intellectual and professional itineraries often converged or crossed paths. Whereas not all of them were trained as architects (for instance Betjeman, Morton Shand and Lancaster), most of them shared links of friendship and collaboration, and their backgrounds and careers gravitated around a small number of architecture schools (the Bartlett and the Architectural Association), associations and pressure groups (the MARS and the Georgian Group), and architectural magazines (The Architects' Journal and The Architectural Review, mainly).

A common feature of the publications examined in this essay is that they do not fit into the category of architectural history intended as a rigorous scholarly practice; published between 1933 and 1936, they are closer to the genre of architectural criticism and writing that the British architectural historian David Watkin has gathered under the definition of 'history of the English tradition'.3

This essay will elucidate the contexts in which these writings were produced and published, and their relations to the broader architectural discourse on modern architecture in Britain. Special attention will be paid to the narratives, the textual and visual languages and the rhetorical strategies deployed by these texts.

Stories of modern English architecture 1933-36

In 1933 John Betjeman4, an Oxford-educated poet and architectural critic, full time assistant editor of The Architectural Review, published a little book with a pink cover entitled Ghastly good taste. Or a depressing story of the rise and fall of English architecture.5 (Fig. 1)#

The work, a light-hearted overview of the English architecture of the previous fifty years told from an autobiographical vantage point, had been - writes Betjeman - 'written for two reasons. Primarily, to dissuade the average man from the belief that he knows nothing about architecture; and secondly to dissuade the average architect from continuing in his profession'. 6 As it seems clear from the very first lines, Betjeman, a self-taught architectural critic with no architectural training, hates almost all living architects, despises and ridicules their works and jeers at their private lives. Here are some of his remarks: 'The average man is a fool and the average architect is a snob. (...) Although intensely proud of being in a "profession" architects are intensely jealous of one another. Their camaraderie is limited to the golf club'. 7 The book's main focus is architectural taste, or more precisely the author's personal taste. On this matter Betjeman leaves no doubt: his enthusiasms are for the late Georgian and the right-up-to-date-modern; he is cautious in his admiration of Gothic; he detests personal antiquarianism; he makes gentle fun of the Victorians and sneers at the Edwardians, except Voysey, Mackintosh and Lutyens. A genealogical tree at the end of the book illustrates what stands in between 'The growth of "good taste"' and 'The deep pit of speculative building', with architects and buildings in bold type representing 'the thin stream of life and vigorous influence for the good in English architecture for the last fifty years', and those in italic epitomizing 'stagnant architecture which is a dead-end in itself, being lost in self-conscious efforts either to parade 'scholarship' or 'value for money' or else to make an ineffectual tasteful compromise between the new and the old'. …

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