Will we celebrate our Elizabethan architecture?

March 7, 2022

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s accession. What defined the architecture of Elizabeth II’s reign and what chance does it have of becoming a revered historic style of the future?

Since the Norman Conquest and with the singular exception of the Middle Ages, the stylistic classification of British architecture has always been inexorably linked to our monarchs or their dynasties: Norman, Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Stuart, Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian. The first Elizabethan Age provides a stirring precedent and paradox to our own. Unlike her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth I took no great interest in architecture, her Golden Age reign mirrored the Renaissance in continental Europe and was a time of remarkable English cultural advancement.

While Shakespeare was penning his works and Drake was circumnavigating the globe, some of England’s greatest country houses – including Longleat, Hatfield, Burghley and Wollaton – were built. The much revered half-timber style of housing was widely popularised for Elizabethan domestic architecture. In a recent Policy Exchange poll, it is this style of housing that was selected as the public’s second favourite choice (after the Edwardian terraced house) from a group of ten different styles.

Of the five styles that performed the worst, all were from the Modernist period that coincides with Elizabeth II’s reign. Will the Queen’s long reign be forever tarred with the dying embers of Modernism? Or is it too soon to fairly evaluate its legacy without the illuminating benefit of hindsight?

Both answers are likely to be true. Modernism had a transformative effect on global culture and society at the start of the 20th century. Its prioritisation of the themes of industry, structure, technology and efficiency sowed the seeds from which the Modern world we all recognise grew. Modernism is responsible for some great works of British architecture. Many of the most famous – such as Leslie Martin’s Royal Festival Hall (1951) and Sir Frederick Gibberd’s Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (1967) – are broadly concurrent with at least the start of the Queen’s reign.

But there has been much about the architecture of Elizabeth II’s reign that has been less welcome. Spiteful mid-century ideological attacks on heritage saw the demolition of hundreds of superb historic buildings; Covent Garden and St. Pancras Station were only narrowly spared. Cities including Birmingham, Coventry, Exeter, Hull, Manchester and Plymouth were brutally eviscerated in the name of post-war reconstruction, a process in stark contrast to many Continental cities which sought instead to restore their blitzed pre-1939 fabric.

Pluralism is the key factor in our Elizabethan Age’s favour. The Queen’s reign is unlikely to be associated with one overriding architectural style. Her reign began with Modernism which morphed into the initially reviled but latterly rehabilitated Brutalism from which Centre Point (1963) and the Barbican (1965-76) were spawned. Then came High-Tech which gave us the controversial Lloyds Building (1986). Postmodernism followed, bequeathing showpiece statement starchitecture like Canary Wharf Tower (1991) and the SIS or MI6 Building (1994) of James Bond fame.

The Imperial War Museum of the North (2002) owes a debt to the Deconstructivism of the early 2000s, which also greatly influenced the work of the late great Zaha Hadid. The diametrically opposed New Classicism movement has made tepid UK inroads with the work of  Quinlan Terry and Robert Adam. What might loosely be termed as Contemporary Modern can categorise everything from the Gherkin (2004) to the new Birmingham New Street Station (2015). The Queen’s most enduring architectural legacy will be a rich smorgasbord of aesthetic variety from which almost everyone will find something to either cherish or chide.

Something that sets the Queen’s architectural legacy at a disadvantage is the erosion of the formerly pivotal tradition of royal patronage. Whereas the Queen’s forbears could seal their legacies by commissioning cities, palaces and cathedrals, the Queen’s own architectural forays have been limited to little more than John Simpson’s new Queen’s Gallery wing to Buckingham Palace (1999) and the nightly floodlighting of the palace’s iconic East Front from 2006 after tourist chiefs pleaded that the building was invisible after dark.

Her successor has already established himself as a far more assertive architectural activist and when the legacy of King Charles III is written, his foundation’s developments at Poundbury, Nansledan and more recently Faversham will play a formative role in the architectural assessment of both his reign and its long apprenticeship.

While it did not involve the setting of a single brick to mortar, the Scud missile the prince hurled at the architectural establishment in 1984 when he compared the proposed Modernist extension to the National Gallery to a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend” sparked a much-needed public debate about modern vs traditional architecture. It is a debate that is still being fought and it set the wheels in motion that led to Policy Exchange’s own Building Beautiful programme. The Prince of Wales has been the most influential royal interventionist since Edward VII.

One feature of the Queen’s reign has been the relentless quest for instant gratification. From social media to rolling news the modern world glamourises immediacy and fetishizes the new; architecture is by its nature a glacial process. To truly assess the architectural legacy of Queen Elizabeth II we might have to wait until the reign of a future Queen Elizabeth.


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