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Re-Forming Britain: Narratives of Modernity before Reconstruction By Elizabeth Darling.Routledge, 2007. £27.50

Elizabeth Darling is annoyed that no book on English Modernism in the 1930s has poked beneath the stylistic surface. Her method is to concentrate on a fistful of the most socially ambitious buildings of the period - the Pioneer and Finsbury Health Centres, Isokon flats, Sassoon House, Kent House and Kensal House - and relate them to the people who commissioned them. By studying the 'dogooders' and voluntary organisations who sought to improve the living conditions and the health of the working classes, Darling helps us to understand the architecture and the growing maturity of men like Wells Coates and Maxwell Fry behind it.

Ignore the polemical introduction of Re-Forming Britain, and the occasionally awkward editing, and enjoy the way in which these familiar stories are linked together with new insight. Darling also shows how organisations - whether charities like the St Pancras House Improvement Society or the commercial Gas Light and Coke Company seeking new markets for its products - argued for reform through better methods of propaganda such as photography, pamphlets and films. Their work tied in with that of the Design and Industries Association: it was a decade in which pressure groups could really chip away at traditional mindsets.

Architects similarly argued for greater cleanliness and better planning in the exhibition they organised in March 1938 as the MARS Group, headed by Coates and Fry. This featured a study by housing expert Elizabeth Denby, the real heroine of the book, and was signifi cant as a first collaboration between younger architects such as Hugh Casson, Ralph Tubbs and H T Cadbury-Brown, who would go on to design the Festival of Britain.

In conclusion, Darling looks at a still younger generation, who studied at the Architectural Association in the late 1930s but only practised after the war. Architects like Anthony Cox took the messages of research and collaborative working further, into large-scale schemes that prefigured post-war housing estates and New Towns.

Could health clinics and better-planned flats have been built without recourse to Modernism? The detail of labour-saving planning, cheap furniture schemes, nurseries and social clubs advocated by Denby was indeed realised in schemes of more traditional appearance around St Pancras, and at Leeds' Quarry Hill Flats.

Darling argues, however, that there was a need for such reforms to express themselves in a Modern image, and that architects and reformers came to share a common mission.

A greater worry is the image of Darling's book, which is illustrated with a few poorly reproduced contemporary photographs. The disparity in publishing between the pretty and the meaty is the real reason why there have been so few decent books on 20th-century English architecture in the past 25 years.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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