Sunday, 16 May 2010

Modernity and tradition on the Suffolk coast

This extraordinary concrete church, St Andrew in Felixstowe (1929-31, listed at Grade II*) was designed by Hilda Mason in collaboration with Raymond Erith. It mixes modern architectural themes and modern construction with clear references to the medieval churches of East Anglia.

Erith, born in 1904, went on to become a leading classical architect in the postwar period when classical architecture was completely out of fashion, and in due course was the mentor and partner of Quinlan Terry.

I don’t know who Hilda Mason was. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on Avon by Elizabeth Scott was, I seem to remember, cited as the only major or listed pre-war public building by a female architect. It seems this is not the case. And the church looks more interesting than the theatre.

St Andrew’s made me wonder whether Erith could have gone on to be a much more interesting architect had he taken a different path – maybe in the vein of George Pace, or William Whitfield in his later buildings.

Robert McCrum, in today’s Observer, reflects on the difficulty that writers and other artists find in remaining creative as they age. No problem for geniuses such as Picasso, but not so easy in the lower tiers. One can’t help noticing that the second half of the average ‘best of’ CD isn’t worth listening to. The late novelist Simon Raven remarked that ‘as people get older they get more conservative and more boring’ – I think we’ve all noticed that. The architect Tony Fretton, giving a talk at the RIBA’s Small Practice conference a couple of years ago, observed that the visual language of architecture is renewed by small young practices. We seldom see anything new from the ‘great’ or leading architects today, once they are established – we have to seek it out elsewhere.

So Erith starts out, aged 25 or so, with an association with a building that is still startling today, and ends up pursuing a kind of architecture where originality is not so highly admired. Leon Krier’s trajectory is similar: early modernist-influenced work while working for James Stirling rejected in favour of a conversion to traditional ways of thinking about architecture and urbanism.

So might the conversions of Erith and Krier to traditional design be no more than examples of the syndrome that Raven articulated? If creativity dries up in middle age, then a philosophy that regards creativity as overvalued sounds like an expedient strategy to adopt at about that time.

I wish I knew more about Hilda Mason.

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