Diverse Modernities

There’s a saying that people ignore modern architecture because most modern architecture ignores people. Architectural historians at Oxford Continuing Education are playing a key role in a landmark conference which aims to debate government and public policy with regard to the more traditional architecture of the twentieth century.

Dr. David Lewis, Director of Studies in Architectural History, together with other Oxford staff, is one of the organizers of a conference, ‘Diverse Modernities; British Architecture Beyond Modernism, 1918 – Present’, which is being held in Cambridge University’s recently established Centre for the Study of Classical Architecture at Downing College. The conference will be opened by Lord Parkinson, Minister for the Arts.

The architecture of everyday life

Twentieth-century Britain has been home to a range of rich and significant architectural approaches, enriched by traditions from across the world, not just Modernist. In addition to architect-designed buildings, Britain also saw millions of homes built in modern vernacular styles based on the Tudor Revival, Neo-Georgian, and the Arts and Crafts Movement. These, and the public buildings such as libraries, post-offices, pubs, banks, schools, and local hospitals built in traditional styles, form the backdrop of our lives – yet are too often overlooked.

Prompted in part by a series of high-profile demolitions, the conference hopes to stimulate an increased academic interest in the traditional architecture of the last century and excite people to value this architecture for what it is – not what it isn’t.

‘Part of the purpose of the conference,’ says David, ‘is to nudge people towards taking a more sympathetic view of non-modernist modern buildings, by demonstrating a lively academic interest in this material.’

The public tend to be fond of these traditional buildings. They’ve lasted well, are built using good materials, they often relate carefully to the local area, and are part of our everyday lives. However the odds are stacked against them in many ways, especially if they occupy economically valuable city-centre land.

The ‘Diverse Modernities’ conference will also examine buildings’ relevance to contemporary priorities for the built environment – such as respect for the street, sensitivity to context, openness to varied historical memories, and the creative interaction of tradition and modernity.

‘One of the many issues’ says Dr Julian Holder, tutor in Architectural History, ‘is that the government’s listing criteria put more stress on uniqueness and innovation than, say, maintaining tradition or fitting in with the surroundings – so we can easily get the impression that these traditional buildings don’t matter. They do. It’s hard enough to get twentieth-century architecture taken seriously as it is, due to what Sir John Betjeman called the ‘antiquarian prejudice’ – but we are increasingly losing a lot of very good architecture of the inter-war period in particular so we need to start celebrating it more. Here in Oxford we have good work by leading architects of the time such as Temple Moore, Giles Gilbert Scott, Hubert Worthington, Edward Lutyens, Edward Maufe and P. Morley Horder to study.’

Teaching and publishing in support of twentieth-century architecture

David is currently completing a book on Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of buildings as diverse as Battersea Power station, Liverpool Cathedral and many other supposedly non-Modernist buildings including Oxford University’s New Bodleian Library. He was also the creator of the iconic and much beloved red telephone box.

Meanwhile Julian is writing on the Neo-Georgian architect Emmanuel Vincent Harris who designed some of the most significant civic buildings of the inter-war period in major cities such as Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, the then new University of Exeter, and London’s Ministry of Defence building on Whitehall.

The contemporary classical architect Robert Adam – one of the pioneers of contextual urban design and designer of Oxford’s Sackler Library, and Trinity College’s new Levine building – is joining our panel of part-time tutors and will be teaching a face-to-face classical design workshop in Michaelmas term.

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Published 26 August 2022