Parade’s End: how First World War architecture fell out of fashion

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With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War upon us, it’s been impossible to escape. Siegfried Sassoon poems have been reverently recited on Newsnight. On Woolwich Common near where I live, a replica trench has been built for schoolchildren to visit.

It’s understandable that though the last veteran died several years ago, this centenary should be marked so reverently. The two world wars of the twentieth century were without precedent and the start of the first marked a decisive break in world history. For the first time industrialised warfare meant that a major conflict would end not with a quick and decisive victory but a bloody stalemate that took four years – and millions of casualties on all sides – to conclude. Of course there weren’t the same commemorations in the 1950s on the centenary of the end of the Crimean War. While that cost  20,000 British lives, a large number for a conflict that did not impinge directly on British interests and took place many thousands of miles from home, this was a tiny fraction of the million British deaths during World War One.

That the First World War was soon described afterwards as the “War to end all Wars” adds greater poignancy. The Second World War, which started barely twenty years after the First ended, saw 60 million killed – four times as many as the First. With conflicts taking place all over the world – in Ukraine,  southern Sudan, Libya, Syria, Palestine and an under-reported but very bloody Mexican Drug war, which has claimed an astonishing 150,000 lives since 2006 – it’s appropriate and right to reflect on the ongoing folly of war, and how poorly mankind has learnt the lessons of past conflagrations.

But amidst the military re-enactments, the renditions of the Last Post and the constant repetition of poems by Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, something is missing. The architectural styles that flourished both before, during and after the war – Edwardian Baroque and its successor, the souped-up neo-Georgian architecture of the reign of George V from 1910 onwards – have quietly fallen out of fashion just as the First World War’s centenary has approached.

Admittedly, both the Imperial War Museum and the Sandham Memorial Chapel (Stanley Spencer’s underrated memorial to the conflict) have been extensively refurbished and reopened just in time for the centenary on August 4th. But neither building is typical of its period (the IWM is a conversion of a lunatic asylum, the Bethlem Hospital, built in the 1810s). Apart from actual War memorials (which are quite rightly being restored and cherished 100 years on), most buildings built before, during or after the First World War are thought of as dull, ugly, or derivative.

Histories of British architecture often pay very little attention to Edwardian buildings of the 1900s and Neo-Georgian buildings of the 1910s and 1920s, or even fast-forward directly from the Victorians to the Modern Movement. The period is often glossed over as a boring interlude. Harry Mount’s offbeat architectural history A Lust for Window Sills (2008), subtitled “a lover’s guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to pebble dash”, discusses at length how Victorian gothic architecture fell spectacularly out of fashion in the early twentieth century, but barely mentions the neo-Baroque and neo-Georgian styles that supplanted it.

Now these styles have fallen out of fashion as well, but into irrelevance rather than contempt. This fall is odd as the Portland Stone and red brick edifices of the period are everywhere, and especially in London. London is often described as Victorian city. But in fact a high proportion of London’s most iconic buildings – if not its best – were built after 1901, and  a surprisingly large number after the death of Edward VIII in 1910, by which time the term Edwardian no longer applies. It could be said that London today is still a largely Georgian city – but “Georgian” as in the reign of George V (1910-1935), not the first four Georges from 1714 to 1830.

Although London’s oldest department store, Harrods, boasts that it has traded since 1834, it was burnt to the ground in 1883 and the current building was completed in stages between 1894 and 1905 to designs by Charles William Stephens. And although Victoria did lay the foundation stone for Aston Webb’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899, the building is firmly Edwardian, not Victorian: it was not completed until 1909.

The period 1910-1914 , just before the outbreak of World War One, saw many of London’s landmarks, streets and squares transformed. Aston Webb refaced Buckingham Palace in 1913. At the other end of the Mall, Admiralty Arch – also by Webb – had been completed just a year earlier in 1912. On Regent Street the demolition of most of Nash’s terraces, and their replacement by colossal Portland stone edifices  by Herbert Baker and others,  had begun at the turn of the century and was well underway by 1914. Norman Shaw’s massive Piccadilly Hotel, on the west side of the Quadrant – the curved section of Regent Street just north of the Circus – had been completed in 1905.

On the northern side of Parliament Square is the Treasury, an underrated building with corner towers ironically reminiscent of the Berlin Reichstag – and again an Edwardian rather than Victorian edifice. Technically know either as 1 Horseguards Road or Government Offices Great George Street (GOGGS for short), construction started in 1898. The West end was completed in 1908 and the East end was completed in 1917, when the War was at its height, with the helping hand of a second architect, Sir Henry Tanner, following its original architect John Brydon’s death in 1901. But the building that resulted is faithful to Brydon’s vision – and highly evocative of Wren, Inigo Jones’ and John Webb’s unrealised seventeenth century visions for Whitehall palace. It is a building that is outwardly timeless, but inwardly functional, with lightwells of glazed brick to maximise daylight to its innards.

The nearby Old Admiralty Building – the backdrop to the ‘Trooping the Colour’ celebrations, with its distinctive copper cupolas and red brick amidst the ubiquitous Portland stone – was completed in 1905, to designs by a Halifax architect, Leeming and Leeming. As Pevsner rightly says, its domes “support radio masts and wires like giant washing lines, successors to the rooftop signal that from which a chain of lookouts carried messages all the way to Portsmouth” – but these lines also resemble the rigging of a Dreadnought. Great architecture it may not be, but as a metaphor for the power and prestige of the pre-war Royal Navy, it can’t be beat.

At Hyde Park Corner, Decimus Burton’s Wellington Arch may have been erected back in the 1820s but it did not acquire its distinctive “Quadriga” (or ancient four-horse chariot) on top until 1912. Further east, the Old Bailey was built on the site of the old Newgate Gaol: while its Wren-like dome, topped by a bronze statue of Lady Justice, is often assumed to be ancient it was in fact completed to designs by EM Mountford as recently as 1907.

All these supposedly “ancient” London landmarks were in fact built barely 100 years ago, just before World War One: some of them were started before the war and only completed after it

On the south bank of the Thames the construction of County Hall, designed by Ralph Knott in ubiquitous Portland stone, had  started in 1911: it was not officially opened, by King George V himself, until 1922. Edwin Lutyens’ most well-known London work is the Cenotaph in Whitehall, built in wood in 1918 and then rebuilt in stone in 1920: but a much bigger and more important work is the headquarters of the British Medical Association on Tavistock Square, begun in 1911 and not completed until 1925. The construction of Edwin Cooper’s monumental Port of London offices (the Beaux-Arts tower overlooking the Tower of London) was started in 1912 and not completed until 1922: like many projects, the war cause a temporary interruption but no great rethink or change of style. Like the novels of PG Wodehouse, these buildings carried on after the war just as they had done before.

Many similar projects started straight after the war as if nothing had happened to shake the imperial self-confidence of Britain: Herbert Baker largely rebuilt the Bank of England from the 1920s onwards (retaining some of John Soane’s original outer walls but little else), and in 1923 Wembley Stadium (since rebuilt) was hastily thrown up for the Empire Games, its twin Towers flimsy but showing no sign of post-war self-doubt. There was no real change of architectural mood in Britain until Art Deco began to catch on after the Paris Exhibition of 1925: until then Baroque and neo-classical styles dominated.

All these buildings have two things in common: firstly their huge size, and secondly that they are often assumed to be several decades (or even centuries) older than they really are. A third common feature is that their architects, with the possible exception of Edwin Lutyens, are now relatively obscure – Herbert Baker and Norman Shaw are well-known in architectural circles but have not become household names as Victorian architects such as Waterhouse and George Gilbert Scott have done, even though they were much more prolific.

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm once co-edited a great book called The Invention of Tradition, which revealed that many of the supposedly “ancient” British traditions such as Scottish Tartan, and the ceremonial rituals of Royal funerals and coronations, were in fact Victorian and Edwardian innovations. The same is true of many Edwardian buildings: all these monuments were designed to look timeless, harking back to the times of Wren, Nash and John Adam – or even to ancient Rome – but internally many of them are surprisingly modern, with steel frames, built-in central heating and electrics, generous natural light and much more open-plan interiors than the Victorians had built.

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Increasingly, such buildings are not just being ignored: a surprising number have been torn down in recent years, or are still on Death Row.

At the heart of the London School of Economics’ campus, amidst a warren of streets just off Kingsway, is the LSE’s new Saw Swee Hock Student Centre by Irish architect O’Donnell + Tuomey, the first new building commissioned by LSE in over 40 years, and recently shortlisted for the 2014 RIBA Stirling Prize. The new building deserves praise but it required the demolition of St Philip’s Hospital,  built as the Strand Union Workhouse infirmary in 1904-5 by A.A. Kekwich. While not a world-class building by any means (Pevsner described its style as “cramped red brick Norman Shaw”) , the hospital contributed to the character of the LSE’s campus and its demolition was strongly opposed by the Victorian Society, as well as users of the NHS health centre that operated from it.

Yet the demolition of St Philips in 2012 is hardly ever mentioned in discussions of the new building that now stands in its place – not even by Rowan Moore, the Observer’s excellent architecture critic, in his glowing review last February. It seems that alternative uses for the building were not properly explored. While the student centre may be a prize-winner, LSE itself gets no marks for the dog-in-a-manger justification for the hospital’s demolition: “At the current time the building cannot meet the School’s needs as it is inefficient in its use of space. The proportion of the space that is useable is much lower than in other LSE buildings and disabled access is poor. The School intends to demolish St Philips and develop a building that maximises the site’s full potential.” It’s some consolation  -but not much – that an exciting new building  arose from such a small-minded brief.

North of the border, Perth and Kinross Council seems determined – incredibly – to mark the centenary of its own City Hall, a fine neo-Baroque building of 1913 by H. E. Clifford and Thomas Lunan – by knocking it down (note the Daily Telegraph’s coverage stresses that the hall saw Thatcher’s first speech as Prime Minister in 1979, a historical accident that has no bearing on its architectural quality). Demolition was approved in 2012, was blocked by Historic Scotland in 2013, but then seemed back on the cards after the council rejected the only bid – an indoor food market – for the building.

The council seems to have had second thoughts and has now remarketed the building for six months, and a hotel use may follow. But if the City Hall survives it will be no thanks to Perth’s councillors, for whom their City Hall seems to be nothing other than a pompous embarrassment. Again, it’s not great architecture but it would be hard to imagine a Victorian Gothic Town Hall being treated with such disdain.

In Manchester, next door to Piccadilly Station is a huge civic building – technically known as London Road Fire Station but in fact a police station, fire station, ambulance station, gas-meter testing station, bank, coroners court and firemen’s accommodation rolled into one, a red brick and terracotta complex designed by Woodhouse, Willoughby and Langham and built between 1901 and 1906. Largely empty for 28 years since the fire station closed in 1986, Britannia Hotels’ plan to convert the building  – with glazing over the main courtyard – remains just a plan and its Hawksmoorian turrets continue to deteriorate, as the excellent website of the building’s Friends Group explains.

Back in London, a large part of Marylebone’s magistrates court (built as public baths by A Saxon Snell in 1897) was demolished in  2009: admittedly a Victorian building rather than an Edwardian one, but one that was very much a foretaste that what was to come after the turn of the century. An older part of the courthouse, dating way back to 1848, was salvaged but its late-Victorian wing was thought to be “of little architectural interest” and ripe for replacement by a new courthouse by Hurd Rolland Partnership. And over in trendy Shoreditch, a similar Magistrates Court on Old Street, designed by John Dixon Butler and opened in 1908, has been disused ever since the court’s closure in 2005 – even though it is widely considered one of the finest Edwardian civic buildings in London and is Grade II-listed. Work on the promised hotel conversion, which was approved way back in 2008, has only just started. It is puzzling why there is so little outcry about such a fine central London building standing empty for ten years, and being squatted by Occupy, compared to the hysteria that the temporary dereliction of trendier twentieth-century buildings like De La Warr pavilion prompted.

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At least one Edwardian monster is about to be rescued from obscurity. In 2017 the Old Admiralty Building (now known as OAB for short) will see an overspill of civil servants from the Foreign Office move out, and the Department of Education move in – an apt metaphor for Michael Gove’s espousal of Edwardian values and his notorious castigation for teachers’ and schools’ concentration on mud and shellholes when covering the First World War.

But Michael Gove’s nostalgia for the pre-war high noon of the British Empire is a minority view. The buildings that the period produced have fallen spectacularly out of fashion in recent years. Like early Elgar and the SS Titanic, they are often seen as symbols of imperial pomposity and hubris, giant vanity projects that foretold the bloodbath that followed soon after their construction – or else taken for granted or simply ignored.

Every cultural strand has one: a style or look that once was all the rage and has now fallen spectacularly out of fashion. Although contemporary Hipster culture means that if something is defiantly uncool it can instantly be reinvented as ubercool, some genres seem beyond redemption.

In literature there’s Ernest Hemingway: widely regarded in the 1950s as the greatest of modern novelists, but hardly read today. His gun-toting machismo concealed vulnerabilities that ultimately led Hemingway to take his own life. But when he is portrayed in contemporary culture – for example in the recent Woody Allen fantasy Midnight in Paris (2011) – Hemingway is portrayed by Tom Hardy as a boozed-up parody (by an intriguing twist, Ernest’s granddaughter Mariel Hemingway starred alongside Allen in his 1979 classic Manhattan).

In popular music just about every genre has come and gone out of fashion several times, but the 1970s and 1980s produced a range of bands and superbands – the Travelling Wilburies, Queen, the Osmonds and the Bay City Rollers – which seem to have fallen permanently out of fashion and show no signs of being rediscovered anytime soon. In films, the Western had a long period in the wilderness, until it was rehabilitated by Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992: while there have not been many westerns since then, Brokeback Mountain, Cold Mountain and There Will Be Blood have become instant classics.

In interior design there’s Artex – the plaster-like material intended to receive a textured finish, thus enabling a ceiling to be finished without plastering skills. Widely used in Britain in the 1970s, mainly with stippled and swirled patterns, Artex is now something that is gleefully ripped out rather than installed – as its Wikipedia entry puts it diplomatically, nowadays “textured ceiling finishes are a good deal less popular”.

What about architecture itself? There came a time in the early 1980s when Victorian architecture came back into fashion – at some point between the successful campaigns to save St Pancras and Covent Garden from demolition and Prince Charles’s Vision of Britain crusade – and Victorian buildings stopped bring knocked down so often. There were some high-profile demolitions of Victorian building in the 1980s: The Mappin And Webb Building demolished for James Stirling’s Number One Poultry, Derby’s fine Railway Station,  among them – but few since. Victorian Architecture chimed with the Victorian values of Margaret Thatcher and the post-modern distrust of concrete, steel and glass.  New London office blocks such as Minster Court and Broadgate were thrown up with their steel frames hidden by neo-Victorian façades,  and in one extreme case – Grand Buildings on Trafalgar Square – a Victorian building was torn down and then rebuilt as an almost exact replica externally, albeit with a glazed atrium and open floorplates inside.

Times have changed  (I walked past the entrance to Grand Buildings the other day on my way to Waterstone’s,  and spotted that its Beaux-Arts atrium has been made into  cool, modernistic triangular column of space) but Victorian architecture is still in vogue: witness the renaissance of Barlow’s train shed at St Pancras, the restoration of Tyntesfield (the kind of Victorian pile that was being demolished left, right and centre until the 1960s) and the devotion with which Bazalgette’s Crossness Engines are being restored. Although London Bridge station recently lost its 1860s trainshed, which was seen as an obstacle to the rebuilding the station so badly needs, most of it is being relocated to a railway museum of Aberystwyth:in the 1980s a similar trainshed at St Enoch’s in Glasgow was summarily torn down.

But the architectural period that followed Victoria, which has now quietly and unceremoniously fallen out of fashion, shows no sign of a comeback. Opulent Edwardian architecture is more redolent of imperial over-reach than civic virtue: it seems tainted by the bloodbath that followed. Like an elephant tin the room, Edwardian baroque is oddly overlooked – being too ubiquitous and inoffensive to be the object of ridicule or hatred – and underrated.

Now that too many of these buildings are starting to be dispensed with it is time to rediscover and celebrate them – far from being the fag-end of Victoriana, they also pointed to modernism and as buildings designed to impress, they take some beating. The Victorian Society also covers Edwardian architecture but maybe the Edwardians need a watchdog of their own.

If you want to understand the hubris that lead to the First World war, the grandeur and self-confidence of the empire that was about to send millions of young men to their futile deaths, looking at the period’s buildings is a good start.

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One Response to Parade’s End: how First World War architecture fell out of fashion

  1. Steve Marsh says:

    This is such a tragedy, which makes me angry, that the destruction of historic buildings and thus our architectural heritage is still allowed to happen today! We need many more people like Prince Charles and unfortunately even he is silenced.

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