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The age-old problem of cool Britannia

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Going Modern and Being British: Art, Architecture and Design in Devon 1910-1960 At the Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, until 30 May and Plymouth City Art Gallery from 20 June until 25 July

There are more flat-roofed Modern Movement houses in Devon than in any other English county but Surrey. This surprising claim alone more than justifies this exhibition. Its title is taken from Paul Nash's 1932 essay where he wrote: 'Whether it is possible to 'go modern' and still 'be British' is a question vexing quite a few people today.' The apparent contradictions between Modernism and Britishness, the cosmopolitan and the rural, was a theme he pursued in much of his work.

A 1930s government report on the debilitating effects of cinema could only just claim that 'an Oxford Don no longer feels the need to explain when he is leaving a kinema'. How worrying, then, to find architectural examples of 'mechanical culture' littering the landscape of Devon. How did they get there? Is this another example of Modernism at the margins, tolerated so long as its implicit socialism is not a threat? Certainly proximity to the sea, the re-branding of the Modern Movement in architecture with 'The Nautical Style', and new patterns of leisure must be among the reasons.

For all the white cubic villas of Devon, its enduring image is still provided by villages such as Cockington, complete with its 'traditional' pub, 'The Drum', designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Indeed Lutyens casts a large shadow over the county's architecture, and not simply because of brooding Castle Drogo. His pupils, Oswald Milne and Fred Harrild, guaranteed a continuation of a rustic manner; and in houses such as Milne's Coleton Fishacre we find a familiar compromise between going Modern and being Britsh.

Milne's traditional Arts and Crafts work in Devon sits in judgement on the county's chief entry in the history books of the Modern Movement - the so-called Dartington Experiment. Begun in 1925 by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst (an American heiress), Dartington represented the Modern as a complete project, not just an isolated building. With the creation of Staverton Builders, the South-west's biggest building firm, more and more estates were planned - but nothing as grand as Dartington.

David Jeremiah's excellent study in the show's catalogue reveals the development of the estate in all its variety: the restoration of the Medieval Great Hall by William Weir, William Lescaze's High Cross House (1931), houses by Louis de Soissons, the school by Delano & Aldrich, early barn conversions by Rex Gardner, and much else besides. It presents a microcosm of going Modern and being British (using us methods and money), especially in the attempt to trade on the image of the English Riviera and spread Modernist estates along the coastline. Gropius was to have had a hand in it, but so did the cpre.

Dartington was in many ways a Modernised country estate with new farms, workers' housing, school, theatre, gardens, mills and retail outlets - indeed Gropius saw it as an English Bauhaus.

Elsewhere in the county more traditional education programmes were being pursued in more traditional buildings. Vincent Harris' designs for the University of Exeter demonstrate, as do so many of his buildings, the influence of Lutyens. Yet he is no mere copyist, and one can't help but wonder what their relative reputations would have been had Lutyens done civic work for the public sector and Harris grand houses for private clients.

Going Modern and Being British leaves you wanting to know more - about the re-planning of Plymouth and Exeter after their bombing, for instance, and about the patrons of 'new architecture' in the 1930s. But Nash's dilemma - used as a starting point more than a consistent argument for the loose assembly of late Post-Impressionist paintings, architectural plans, photographs and artefacts that make up the exhibition - is still with us today. The image of a young, cosmopolitan nation currently being spun by New Labour has still to work against a backdrop of rural imagery and traditional ways of living.

Julian Holder is an architectural historian

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