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Uncovering the story of early British modernism

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Hazel Strouts

Bauhaus design went hand in hand with the demands for light and cleanliness in sanatoria. Pre-Bauhaus, one of the earliest such buildings was erected in Kent

This year is the centenary of Germany’s Bauhaus School of Architecture and the Royal Institute of British Architects is celebrating with an exhibition. It is no accident that this new school began in a country which also led the way in the building of sanatoria. The age of sanatoria spurred architects to break with the past. The UK too found early modernist tendencies displayed in sanatoria, such as the pavilion building in Benenden Sanatorium, designed by Augustus William West.

In England, Edwardian builders looked backwards for inspiration – to classical architecture, to the gothic and Tudor eras. Their houses reflect history and the erudition of those who paid for them. But architects building sanatoria took an entirely new course. For them, cleanliness was a key requirement along with the need for sunlight and the calm offered by the countryside. For the first time, medical needs determined the architecture and one of the earliest buildings to do so was built in England, not Germany, at Benenden in Kent.

This is because Edward VII was determined to match the fine new sanatoria he had seen or heard of in Germany (his sister, Vicky, lived a few miles from one of the newest at Falkenstein) and he launched an international competition for a new English sanatorium in 1901, as soon as he came to the throne.

He established a committee of eminent doctors, including his own physician, to oversee the competition.  The winner could be either a doctor working on his own or a doctor working with an architect. All entrants were anonymous. A prize of £900 was offered thanks to the millionaire financier Sir Edward Cassel, the king’s most important creditor. Of the 180 entries, the winning essay was written by Dr Arthur Latham working with the architect, West.

  • Augustus William West competition-winning sanatorium plan from 1901.
    Augustus William West competition-winning sanatorium plan from 1901. Credit: RIBA Collections - Architectural Review
  • West's plan for Benenden sanatorium.
    West's plan for Benenden sanatorium. Credit: RIBA Collections

West (1865-1929) had started his career working in the offices of George Devey, famous as a founding father of the Arts and Crafts style. This is an unexpected beginning for someone whose key work was a sanatorium which broke with the past and is described by John Newman in The Buildings of England, as 'a remarkably unaffected building'.

West stayed with the firm until Devey died, when, together with his colleagues James Williams (office manager) and Basil Alfred Slade, he set up Williams, West and Slade. Almost all their buildings were mock Tudor, mock Gothic or neo-classical.

At the time of writing his prize-winning essay, as well as being an architect, West was honorary deputy treasurer for St George’s hospital London and this was probably how he knew Dr Arthur Carlyle Latham (1867-1923), who also worked there.

Their winning design gives great importance to a dust-free environment, to sunshine ('nature’s best disinfectant' as West called it) and to minimising the danger of contagion. They took this last issue further than most by refusing to construct the famous Liegehalle, or open air verandas, popular in German sanatoria. West and Latham feared these would simply offer opportunities for infection.  For the same reason there was to be no chapel.

  • The balconies on West's Benenden sanatorium are later additions. He rejected the idea of balconies on the grounds that they would give opportunity for cross-infection.
    The balconies on West's Benenden sanatorium are later additions. He rejected the idea of balconies on the grounds that they would give opportunity for cross-infection. Credit: Jo Outram
  • Despite winning the Midhurst sanatorium competition West's design was not built there – instead this by Henry Percy Adams.
    Despite winning the Midhurst sanatorium competition West's design was not built there – instead this by Henry Percy Adams. Credit: Hazel Strouts

West produced plans for a building in a consistent style with no reference to anything from the past. His goal was solely to meet medical needs and the need for economy, for the King wanted his sanatorium to serve the less well off.  He therefore designed for simplicity of line both inside and out with large south facing windows opening onto rooms for which he also designed the décor and the furniture. He banned right angled corners because these collect dirt – even his door panels have curved corners. His furniture is similarly curved and easy to clean.

To give his patients shelter from British winds and wishing to avoid the 'hurricane treatment' offered in other sanatoria, instead of constructing the usual straight-line building, he designed one which was crescent-shaped, with wings leading off a central communal area at about 145°.

He was also innovative in the materials he used. He wanted a steel girder framework, cement, concrete and what he called 'Frazzi' which were hollow clay blocks. He argued that these materials would provide a less expensive structure and would minimise noise and dust.

Amazingly, the sanatorium that was built (at Midhurst in West Sussex) was not designed by the winner of the competition, but by Henry Percy Adams, head of an architectural firm which had long specialised in building hospitals. When this new sanatorium was opened by the king in June 1906, The Builders’ Journal and Architectural Record published an essay written by Percy Adams in which he largely dismissed the prize winners – an extraordinary turn of events, for Latham and West’s entry had been chosen by a distinguished committee set up by the King himself. It seems that the new style proposed by West took the Edwardian establishment a little too far out of its architectural comfort zone.

  • The 1937 Lister Wing at Benenden Sanatorium was designed by Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne. It echoes the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill.
    The 1937 Lister Wing at Benenden Sanatorium was designed by Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne. It echoes the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill. Credit: Hazel Strouts
  • The 1935 De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff – a healthy building.
    The 1935 De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff – a healthy building. Credit: Hazel Strouts

Adams’ building at Midhurst (today being converted into apartments) is a typical Edwardian edifice inspired by classical and Tudor architecture. It shows few of the innovations recommended by West and was built not for the poor but for the wealthy.  Patients were divided into Class A and Class B and the grounds were laid out by Gertrude Jekyll, the most fashionable landscape gardener of the day.

But all was not lost for West. One month after Edward VII opened his new sanatorium in Midhurst, his sister, Princess Helena, well known for her interest in nursing issues, laid the foundation stone for a Royal and National Sanatorium in the parish of Benenden in Kent. Midhurst was the King’s hospital while Benenden was his sister’s, and hers was designed by West, the winner of the King’s competition.

The Benenden Sanatorium was funded by the union movement, in particular, by a branch with an impossibly long name - The Post Office Branch of the National Association for the Establishment and Maintenance of Sanatoria for Workers Suffering from Tuberculosis. The chairman of this branch was Charles Garland who had himself worked in the post office. Postal workers were particularly subject to tuberculosis largely because the general population hawked and spat with abandon and contaminated dust rose in clouds when postal workers dragged their sacks along station platforms.

Garland was a friend of Dr Latham and both were intensely interested in helping the tuberculous poor. Both knew that Midhurst was well out of the reach of workers and both knew (none better than Latham himself) that an excellent winning plan for a new hospital was going to waste.  No doubt on Latham’s advice, Garland hired West to design a sanatorium for postal workers in the parish of Benenden where he had bought farmland (together with a working farm) in a secluded rural situation, several miles from the village itself.

For this site, West designed a pavilion similar to the crescent shape he describes in his winning essay only with the wings on either side of the central recreation block coming in two sections, each set at an angle to the preceding one.

The pavilion is constructed, as per the competition essay, with a 'steel framework filled in with "Frazzi" and cement, rough casted on the outside and plastered on the inside'. It is built on two floors with 64 cubicles, each with two beds, and 20 single rooms. Declaring that 'smartness leads to cleanliness', West insisted that stairs and floors were to be made of teak, a wood he valued not only for its smartness but for its dirt and fire resistance qualities.  He thus provided a sturdy, permanent building at low cost, without sacrificing quality or style.

West’s avant garde work was complemented in 1937 by the construction of the nearby modernist Lister Wing, built at a time when Walter Gropius, father of the Bauhaus movement, was living in England. This wing has much in common with the famous De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, built in 1935 and both owe a debt to the originality of West’s 1906 work. In John Newman’s view, the Lister building is no match for West’s. It is 'not so relaxed', he says.

The Lister Wing is grade II listed while West’s work is, unfortunately, unlisted, perhaps because, in 1961, balconies were built along the south face destroying some of West’s original work. But nothing can mask the simplicity of his style. It is ironic that the Midhurst Sanatorium, designed to fit in with the past, is being converted into flats while West’s highly original work is slated for demolition.

Perhaps British nostalgia for the past, which may have allowed Adams' design to supplant West’s in the first place, has once again come into play. Even after 100 years, even with a special exhibition mounted by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the modernist style was, and still is, hugely challenging.

Lead photograph: Augustus William West's 1906 sanatorium at Benenden in Kent is now under threat. Credit Jo Outram.
Hazel Strouts is an author and historian, specialising in the period 1900 to 1918

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