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Empire Builders at the V&A

Pamela Buxton

Just as China and the Middle East have provided an architectural feeding frenzy for many a UK practice of late, for the entrepreneurial architect, the British Empire offered plenty of opportunities to win juicy commissions on a whole different scale to that back home. Hand in hand with the empire went the buildings that supported colonialism - the government buildings, military bases, splendid termini, as well as grand homes for the ex-pats and churches for them to worship in.

The result, as touched on in the exhibition Empire Builders: British Architects Abroad 1750-1950, was a wildly eclectic outpouring of architectural styles from Palladian to Arts & Crafts, and Gothic to English vernacular. Most stood alien to the vernacular of their location, with the empire imposing a colonial power’s taste as well as political and military authority.

So we see George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival design for Bombay University Buildings, Arts & Crafts –style Khartoum Cathedral by Robert Weir Schultz and William Henry Lynn’s incongruous half-timbered British Embassy chapel in Constantinople. In exotic, far-flung lands, architects were providing an environment where the homesick ex-pat might feel comfortable far from the security of home.

Some weren’t architects at all (although at the time the profession was in its infancy) but were ambitious enough to make the most of the huge opportunities of empire. Carpenter Thomas Lyon went to India and began designing Palladian homes for Europeans. Frederick Stevens, a lowly assistant engineer in the Public Works Department in India, ended up designing the huge terminus for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway in Bombay (begun 1879). Glasgow builder Charles Driver meanwhile prefabricated cast-iron structures and exported them around the world, including a new station in Sao Paulo.

The role of the pattern book is also evident - the popularity of James Wyatt’s Book of Architecture in 1728 abroad may explain the considerable influence his design for Martin-in-the-Fields had on church buildings in India.

There were however some attempts to reflect local building styles including Lutyens, who drew on Mughal and Hindu elements for his Viceroy House in New Delhi. RIBA past president William Emerson was notable for challenging the use of European styles in his career in India, but these were exceptions. Where colonial architecture succeeded best was where architects learnt from the vernacular such as the imposing garrison church in New Delhi by Arthur Shoosmith, which had thick walls and cool windows in response to the climate. In contrast CFA Voysey’s house for a doctor in Aswan, Egypt lacked a courtyard and proved too hot to be occupied for half the year.

This diminutive show is the first of two exhibitions on the work of British architects abroad. But whereas this first exhibition is all about building for a colonial power, the second larger show, which opens in February at the RIBA, is about the flurry of overseas activity since the 70s with practices such as Rogers and Foster building all over the world. Both exhibitions are inspired by the forthcoming BBC series The Brits Who Built the Modern World, which will be screened in the spring.

Empire Builders: British Architects Abroad 1750-1950, until 5 June 2014. Architecture Gallery, Victoria  & Albert Museum, Exhibition Road, London

The Brits Who Built the Modern World, from 10 February – 27 May 2014, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London