Battle stations

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Hugh Pearman finds a nation preparing for war, and Lubetkin, Wells Coates and Wornum completing very different buildings, in the fifth in our series celebrating RIBAJ's 125-year archive

66 Portland Place by Grey Wornum in 1934 – before later expansions. The Observer was ecstatic in its review; the New Statesman was not.
66 Portland Place by Grey Wornum in 1934 – before later expansions. The Observer was ecstatic in its review; the New Statesman was not. Credit: Architectural Press Archive RIBA Collections

Following the history of the Journal decade by decade since it was founded in its present form in 1893, we reach a tumultuous time: 1933-1943. What to select from a period that covered everything from the increasing adoption of modernism to preparations for another war – in particular, debate about air raid shelters in the light of the destruction caused by Blitzkrieg techniques in the Spanish Civil War?

This was when Lubetkin and Tecton (with engineer Ove Arup) came to prominence, and in 1934 three very different London buildings were completed, or nearly: what seemed the future, as represented by Lubetkin’s High Point and the Isokon apartment block in Lawn Road, Hampstead, by Wells Coates; and what quickly seemed the past, as represented by the RIBA building at 66 Portland Place, a competition win by Grey Wornum.

Not that Wornum’s building was traditionalist, exactly, more that it was a compromise stylistically. It has elements of Swedish classicism, of deco, and of arts and crafts, with the dash of that cinematic-ocean-liner modernity known as moderne. Such as the library, where I sit writing this. It is one of the most successful spaces in the building and was regarded as such from the outset by just about everyone.

This was the RIBA’s centenary building and so, as you’d expect, the Journal went to town on it, devoting one complete issue and a large chunk of the next to it. The King (George V) and Queen opened it. The Journal ran three pages of press notices. ‘Modesty, which should have forbidden us to reproduce some, if not all, of the press notices below, has fortunately been off the job lately,’ observed an editor, known only as PJ.

‘An interior of exceptional quality’ said The Builder. ‘A work of genius’ said the Architects’ Journal. The Times, while praising its neighbourliness in the streetscape, spotted a problem: ‘It is felt to rely a little too much upon decorative details and not enough upon architecture pure and simple… the mother of the arts has been a little too indulgent as a parent.’

Photographers Dell & Wainwright capture an oblique view of the RIBA atrium in 1934.
Photographers Dell & Wainwright capture an oblique view of the RIBA atrium in 1934. Credit: Architectural Press Archive RIBA Collections

The Manchester Guardian praised Wornum as ‘an informed and cunning craftsman’ working with ‘chaste joyfulness’ and noticed that he was ‘taking advantage in its great girders and stanchions of the new engineering possibilities of the time’. It didn’t much like the relationship of the double-height front window with the square entrance beneath. The Scotsman saw contemporary speed-car and ocean-liner references: ‘Here is a building as lovely as the “Blue Bird” or the “Queen Mary”, and for similar reasons’. Indeed – Wornum did interiors for liners.

The Observer was ecstatic: ‘The architect… has crystallised the functions of the building into a simple monumental idea which every mind can grasp, comprehend and retain.’

The New Statesman, however, was not. ‘Fine workmanship, “safe” taste… what an opportunity has been missed... this prosperous and slightly pompous interior.’

Architects are always up for a crit – well, they’re used to it, anyway. Criticism also came from the chair of the competition assessors, Robert Atkinson. ‘The plan is somewhat complicated (a defect, I fear, of the programme). The RIBA was rather asking for a quart in a pint pot.’

So which won most esteem, in the end? Coates’ and Lubetkin’s modernism or Wornum’s ‘Swedish Grace’?  The former, according to the heritage markings. The Isokon Building and High Point are both Grade 1 listed. 66 Portland Place is – so far – a mere II*.