Magazine article History Today

Shrinkhills

Magazine article History Today

Shrinkhills

Article excerpt

* Tom Wolfe might not like it - he might well want to consign it to another of his bonfires - but the crisp, white, flat-topped forms of the Baunhaus (the |International Style' as Americans called it almost sixty years ago at an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) gleam afresh on the hills above Tiverton in Devon. As we wonder what might follow Post-Modernism with its jokey, ironic references to preceding architectural styles, there is a revival of interest in the 1930s; and two years short of its sixtieth birthday, a small detached house has been newly |restored'.

Built in 1934, |Shrinkhills' takes its name from the steep slope to the south of Tiverton town centre. Those of a military disposition might be interested to learn that during the English Civil War, it was from this vantage point that, in October 1645, the ubiquitous General Fairfax fired on the Royalist garrison of Tiverton Castle across the valley. One round of cannon fire was enough to bring about surrender - then as in the |high tech' wars of the 1990s, minimum collateral damage was seen to be a good thing. This was not the last time men in uniform were to appear on the southern slopes of the town.

When in his twenties and newly wed, Gregory Eastmond of the Tiverton business family set out to build a new home for himself he might well have looked at the town's architectural heritage and decided on a modest revival style, neo-this or neo-that. With Tiverton's incandescent past - six fires between 1598 and 1731 - its surviving strengths seem to be Victorian. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was rude about the Town Hall in 1952, describing it as an atrocious |mongrel affair'. But tastes have subsequently changed, and the second Devon edition of The Buildings of England (1989) gives the kinder description of the 1864 building as |an enjoyable, coarse and confident Franco-Venetian composition'.

The young Eastmond, however, was very forward-looking. He was conscious of new ideas arriving from the Continent and interested in the new designs and forms portrayed in the architectural press; the magazine. Country Life, for example, featured the |new' style in several articles in 1932-33, while the |White Gods', Gropius & Co., were already inflicting similar structures on it defenceless public. Gregory Eastmond was clear what he wanted and, in his own words, he was |swanking, showing off a bit' in his decision to go for the newest design style.

The Eastmond concept was given its final, cubic forms by the architect, Gerald Saunders, then junior partner in the Tiverton practice of Dixon and Saunders and six years older than his client. George Gerald Girling Saunders, LRIBA (1899-1984) was born in Bedford, moving to Tiverton c. 1903 when his father became partner in an ironmongery business. From school Gerald entered the Borough Surveyors Office as an articled pupil. After war service (1917-19) in the RASC, he transferred to architecture, completing his articles in Tiverton in the office of Captain Jos. P. Dixon, architect and surveyor, where from 1933-41, he worked as chief assistant.

|New Ways' is the name of what is regarded as the first private house to be built in England in the International Modern style. Situated on the Wellingborough Road, Northampton, it was built in 1925, the work of Peter Behrens, a German pioneer architect and designer whose appointment in 1907 to the firm AEG in Berlin makes him perhaps one of the first |in-house' corporate designers. Other houses in the new idiom were designed in Essex (1926-27) by Sir J. Burnett & Partners (particularly by Thomas Tait). Oliver Hill was the architect for two striking houses in Surrey and in Devon the Dartington examples appeared between 1931-32, two years before Shrinkhills.

Shrinkhills was one of Gerald Saunders first designs as a qualified architect. He had previously been involved in designing the Tivoli Cinema which was built in 1932, in just sixty days, also at the instigation of Gregory Eastmond (and his co-promoter J. …

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