IIf you haven’t heard of Coleg Harlech in Wales, an adult education institution whose threatened brutalist structures are “probably the most compelling 20th-century buildings in the whole country”, don’t worry. You’re not alone. And it is precisely because works like this are obscure that Modern buildings in Britain had to be written. For one of his strengths is the dedication and persistence with which Owen Hatherley has searched for gems across the country: a radar station in Fleetwood, an experimental plastic classroom in Preston, the magical Pannier Market in Plymouth, the modest 1950s Edgbaston offices of the Engineering & Allied Employers Federation.
These sit alongside more famous works – the National Theater and Lloyd’s building in London, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh – in a more than century-long sweep that dates back to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, built from 1897 to 1909, and extends to recent designs by 6a Architects, Amin Taha and Assemble. What emerges from this 600-page book block is a sense of colossal achievement, by the many architects and builders who have created such a diverse, inventive and powerful array of buildings. It demonstrates that modern architecture in Britain, often controversial and demonized, is a substantial, immovable and remarkable part of the national story.
A baggy definition of “modern” is needed. It’s easier to say what came out – the warmed-up classicism of Quinlan Terry, almost everything by the late Imperial Maestro Edwin Lutyens – than what should be in it. The common factor in the designs included, if any, is the sense that modern times create conditions and freedoms that result in buildings that are different from those of the past.
If it’s broad, it’s also generous, from Kate Macintosh’s stately home for London’s Southwark to the ‘expressionist emotion and kitsch decoration’ of Francis Xavier Velarde’s St Monica in Bootle Church. in 1936. Hatherley is informed and insightful but also downright opinionated, with perhaps unexpected results. It tastes of astringent functionality, but also of the colorful postmodern extravaganzas of the BBC’s FAT studios in Cardiff and John Outram’s “muscular and cartoonish” Judge Business School in Cambridge.
What attracts him the most is the proof of strong minds, of architects who know what they want and go for it. Strongest in spirit is Brutalism – “responsible”, says Hatherley, “for most of Britain’s true masterpieces of twentieth-century architecture” – whose love is a driving force behind the book.
Certain contradictions are inherent in the Hatherley project. He says he wants to describe buildings as lived experiences rather than “pure images,” but the gazetteer format doesn’t allow him to dwell long in one place. He presents architecture as a set of individual objects, even as images, rather than as inhabited places. The ancestry of the genus dates back to Buildings of England Nikolaus Pevsner’s guides to the great tours of 18th century English aristocrats. It involves a detached, touristic, educated, potentially empowered eye.
This approach generates back and forth from the subjective to the objective – between adjectival descriptions (‘rigorous’, ‘ruthless’, ‘thrilling’, ‘socially convincing and visually pleasing’) and scholarly identifications of Scandinavian or constructivist influences. This leads him to categorize each building with a style (“modern”, “eclectic modernist”, “ecomodernism”) which helps to navigate the multiplicity of looks, but places projects in boxes where they do not comfortably belong.
Hatherley also struggled to reconcile her love of modernist architecture with a commitment to socialist politics. Both, as he says, are progressive, but not in a way that is perfectly aligned with each other. So Richard Seifert, enthusiastic agent of the capitalism of property developers like the Center Point tower in London, designed modernist buildings that Hatherley admired. Left-leaning local authorities, as he acknowledges, are notorious for ordering non-progressive neo-Georgians.
He is not wrong, however, to point out that politics and architecture are closely related, and that it is better to expose unresolved issues than to ignore them, which is the usual practice of guidebooks and gazetteers. . It would be perverse to chronicle Modernist architecture in Britain without mentioning, for example, its importance to the schools and social housing of Clement Attlee’s post-war government.
And, in truth, all of us who write about architecture have to find our fallible way through this ever-damp terrain, where form and content, appearance and meaning invert and blur. Hatherley, with this phenomenal work of collecting and observing, does it better than most.