Illustration by Harry Tennant

The battle between England’s interwar architects

On one side: the modernists. On the other: the traditionalists. But did they—and we—ignore what the people actually liked?
June 5, 2024

If artists are in constant rebellion against their predecessors, then architects want to rewrite history. It is not enough to just build good buildings. We must also call out what is bad, erase what is bad until there is no evidence left of the bad, so that room can be made in this finite world for more of the good. Or at least this is my lasting impression of the dogma of architects between the world wars, after reading this fascinating new survey of the era by Gavin Stamp.

Perhaps more than any other period in history, the interwar period truly can be summarised by old historiographical chestnuts. Yes, it was indeed a time of great change and of great strides in technology; yes, it was a time of soul-searching and transition. It was also a time, judging by Stamp’s meticulous research, when architects and architecture enthusiasts were unrelentingly cruel. “Lacks wit”; “dreariest disaster”; “an act of vandalism”; “too big for their boots”; “tiresome”; “a trifle pretentious”; “incongruous, ignorant”; “really dull”; “a wicked building”; “glorified gin-palace”; “villas like sewage farms”; “like an aeroplane falling through a garage”; “a fantasy created in an opium den by a retired colonel”. And that’s just for starters. Pity the English city dweller of the early 20th century, for surely they looked upon a landscape leaden with affronts to the eye! After the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, in 1932, the composer Edward Elgar puffed that it was “unspeakably ugly and wrong”; he refused to even go inside. Nowadays, the theatre is Grade II listed.

The intensity of this arch mudslinging was perhaps merely indicative of what was at stake. In the aftermath of the First World War, with British society bearing the brunt of an unprecedented loss of life and the collective trauma that this engendered, a new order simply had to emerge—but what shape that order might take was still very much up for debate. The dividing lines were many, but chief among them was that between the young, who had gone to fight, and the old, who had sent them. In the architectural profession, there seemed few among the young surviving architects who looked on the good old days with much fondness, for it was precisely those days that had dropped them in the trenches. The old, for their part, were not quite prepared to pass the baton just yet, for that was tantamount to conceding that their days were now over.

In intellectual terms, this push and pull between young and old morphed into a clash between traditionalism and modernism, or what then was more commonly called the “Modern Movement”. The traditionalists saw the role of architecture as one of historical deference, to perfect the standards and motifs first born in better times: “Greco, Roman, Renaissance, Byzantine”. (To that list you could also add Neo-Georgian, a callback to a more specifically British jolly good time.) As a term, traditionalism might suggest a kind of stuck-in-the-mud conservatism, but it was more about insisting that architecture existed along a continuum, constantly made anew but fundamentally stretching back through the aeons. Erratic left turns didn’t get us anywhere: learning from and building on the lessons of old was the thing. It was in this mentality that the traditionalists differed most sharply from the modernists, who wanted nothing if not a clean break with the past.

But, like the traditionalists, modernism was not really about “modernity” or “being modern”. It was more about meeting rapid technological change with a new kind of mysticism: the machine will change humanity for good, and it will do so in ways beyond our imagination. It is little surprise that its application was most common in the two genres of building that had no direct historical antecedents: the mass-production factory and the cinema.

Few among the young surviving architects looked on the good old days with much fondness

A survey of another European country might make a lot of fanfare about modernism’s strides during this period, but in England the reality was that it remained a hard sell: an exhibition of English modernism, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937, struggled to cough up more than a meagre 49 exemplary buildings. In any case, modernism as an architectural “style” imbibed with artistic values akin to those found in classical antiquity was unfathomable to most English architects. “Nudity needs no excuse in France,” the design writer John Gloag wrote in 1931, “but for the benefit of English decorum it is carefully explained that we are being presented to a scientific discovery, not an artistic one.” A discovery of this sort might indeed be intriguing at first, but it certainly wasn’t something to stir the emotions. Perhaps, to some ears, to say you had “fallen in love” with your modernist pile was a bit like saying you had fallen in love with your butler. 

Yet as the MoMA’s dilemma suggests, there was a wider disparity between architectural thought and application going on here—and one that implicated both traditionalists and modernists alike. The truth is that the arguments about the merits of Corinthian columns over reinforced concrete were, by and large, quite removed from ordinary people. At a time when the population increased by only 10 per cent but the number of houses being built by 30 per cent, the real character of English architecture—the character which most of its inhabitants experienced every day of their lives—was to be found in the suburbs. And in the suburbs, what the “Englishman and his wife” wanted had nothing to do with either modernism’s self-righteous machinations or traditionalism’s highfalutin snobbery. What they wanted was Henry VIII. Or, more specifically, a Tudor house.

We all know the type: a half-timber frame, the slats painted black and white, with a thatch roof. Perhaps sitting at a skewed angle, surrounded by oak trees and hedgerows. Lots of charming nooks and crannies. How quaint! Just about every architect despised it. 

Traditionalists hated it because it was pure pastiche, with no actual grounding in history, not even the Tudor period. Modernists hated it because it was an overt rejection of the machine, a regression in favour of deluded agrarian ideals. It was to this genre of suburban development that both camps, together, reserved their most inventive scorn: “Stockbroker Tudor”; “By-pass variegated”; “Dunroamin” houses. “In ye olde villages and ye newe imitations of ye olde villages, struggling gentlefolk are busy travestying Morris,” the architect writer Lionel Cuffe scoffed.

In the suburbs, what the “Englishman and his wife” wanted was Henry VIII—or, more specifically, a Tudor house

That is, of course, if they mentioned it at all, which was seldom. Stamp notes that, despite its runaway success, no comprehensive survey of this particular brand of suburban “semidetached Tudor” was made at the time. Most architect critics tried to silence it out of existence; even today, little has been written on it. And yet, built in their millions, often to the same handful of anonymously designed templates (perhaps not quite what Le Corbusier had in mind when he beseeched architects to embrace the “spirit of mass production”), they were and remain, argues Stamp, “all but emblematic of England between the wars.” 

Which brings us to a much more pertinent set of questions. At what point does aestheticism become plain-and-simple elitism? When do we give the people what they want as opposed to what we think they ought to want? Architecture still wrestles with these questions today, but perhaps the playwright JB Priestly had already distilled the argument to its bluntest essence back in 1927: “We should be content to make the whole country hideous if we know for certain that by doing so we could also make the people in it moderately happy.” Is that a sacrifice any of our vaunted architects would be willing to make? The record speaks for itself.