When white was right

Look hard enough and you'll find them: Modern Movement houses which popped up in Britain's suburbs during the 1920s and 1930s.
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The Independent Online

It was the 1950s. First there was my house and then one, two, three more houses. The others were all Surrey Stockbroker Tudor with variations on pantiles, shingling, leaded windows, exposed beams, stained glass, reassuring oak staircases and roses around the door.

It was the 1950s. First there was my house and then one, two, three more houses. The others were all Surrey Stockbroker Tudor with variations on pantiles, shingling, leaded windows, exposed beams, stained glass, reassuring oak staircases and roses around the door.

My house was different. Walkers making their way from Box Hill along the North Downs would pause. What was it? A small factory? A sanatorium? My school friends were perplexed, too. But though I might have envied Sara Keene's Tudorbethan mansion or Sally Laurie Taylor's 1960s open-plan brick and timber "Silvertrees", I knew my house was best.

It was one of the couple of hundred Modern Movement houses built in England in the late 1920s and the 1930s. Though most are to be found in the home counties - as a child I did not know that there were 40 other examples in Surrey alone - they were the arcadian antithesis of suburbia. In fact, as Nick Dawe's remarkable photographs - stars of a new book, The Modern House Today - suggest, they still seem alien, beautiful and odd, more like liners than houses, floating on the landscape, poised in the sunshine and eerily lacking all the little signs that normally signify "house". Even in 2000, they continue to look like buildings of the future.

This was not a homegrown architectural movement. Britain's young Modernists - including such luminaries as Serge Chermayeff, Maxwell Fry, FRS Yorke and Kit Nicholson - were inspired by developments in central Europe and France. Then, as the 1930s grew grimmer, Europe came to them. The influential Modernist, Berthold Lubetkin, arrived from Russia in 1931 and by the middle of the decade he had been joined by some of the most gifted architects in Europe. Many seminal British buildings of the 1930s were collaborations between the young English enthusiasts and emigré figures such as Marcel Breuer, Erich Mendelsohn and Walter Gropius. For a brief period Britain was the epicentre of the Modern Movement .

Private houses were never really part of the Modernist dream - the goal was to achieve success with mass housing and public buildings. But in inter-war Britain, for want of larger projects, a combination of intelligent, committed clients and idealistic architects produced a handful of extraordinary private dwellings. They share a common language in the shape of forms and materials: flat roofs, subtle interaction between internal and external space, the appearance of monolithic concrete construction (often, in fact, rendered brickwork) and massive fenestration, invariably consisting of standardised metal windows and sliding, folding metal doors. Their owners may not have been committed Modernists but they clearly wanted to live in a new way. (Not that new, however, for most of the houses had rooms for servants, usually in a ground-floor wing in line with Le Corbusier's dictum: "Do not park your servants under the roof.")

This was architecture that excited suspicion from all sides - particularly planning authorities - and while it is difficult to generalise about the kind of people who commissioned Modern Movement houses in Britain, clients were all making a consciously intelligent and brave decision. Among them were lawyers, doctors and academics, a few artists and aristocrats, and significant numbers of independent professional women.

The house I grew up in was commissioned by a Mrs Cottington Taylor, the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute. Her needs were rational and forward-looking - a double garage, a laundry room with state-of-the-art boiler, three en suite bathrooms, a fitted kitchen complete with Aga, central heating, oak parquet floors, plain Italian marble fireplaces, folding glass doors in the drawing-room and (it was 1939) an air-raid shelter. Her architect, Ernst Freud, son of Sigmund, father of Clement and Lucian, obliged.

We bought the house from its second owner, Donald Campbell - the car and speedboat racer. I am sure Campbell, whose ultimately fatal thirst for speed records gave him the kind of fame later associated with astronauts, lived there in an appropriate way, a kind of Spartan luxury, but my mother's arrival brought a houseful of Chinese Chippendale. She also painted flowers all over the austere copper-sheeted front door, got rid of the Aga and, at one time, had the exterior colourwashed a pale shade of pink.

It was my half-brothers who emerged, inadvertently, as the true Modernists in the household. They dug the rocks and waterplants out of the pond, restoring it to the original stark form planned by Freud - a concrete rectangular tank. They lifted weights and threw javelins until they looked like the herculean figures boxing on the roof terraces of Le Corbusier's ideal city. On summer weekends the brothers were on the roof sunbathing. Gleaming with olive oil, they would take black-and-white photographs of each other striking Grecian poses. Happy days - little planes flew overhead, the roof grew hot to the touch and the curved sweep of the back of the house seemed to drift over the golden cornfields.

By the time I left home, my early Modern childhood seemed unreal. I was mixing in a world where old rectories were perceived to be ideal housing. No one seemed to know, or care, about the Modern Movement.

In the early 1970s I found myself working at the Architectural Review, then housed in Queen Anne's Gate. It was full of young men who looked awfully old-fashioned in their three-piece suits and tweedy jackets, but they were intimidatingly confident as they attacked the disciples of the Modern Movement, blaming it for all the ills of 1970s urban living. Their hero was the Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens. Childhood memories flooded back. "I grew up in a Modern Movement house," I said. One of them looked round. "Poor you," he said witheringly.

Inadvertently, I had stumbled upon an early nest of New Georgians - as they came to be labelled. It seemed to me as if the hopeful evolutionary history of Modernism that had been presented so confidently by my hero Nikolaus Pevsner was being dismantled - especially when, in 1977, David Watkin's Morality and Architecture was published, leading a subtle, clever attack on the intellectual basis of the Modern Movement.

However, the tide turned. The New Georgians turned out to be conservationists, not ideologists. By the end of the decade they had founded the Thirties Society (later renamed the Twentieth Century Society) and dedicated their energies to saving and writing about those very inter-war Modernist houses at which they had once sneered.

But despite the efforts of both the Twentieth Century Society and Docomomo-UK (the British branch of an international body dedicating to documenting and conserving Modern Movement buildings) these houses remained a minority taste until fairly recently. And, as Nick Dawe's photographs demonstrate, not all such houses have been as cherished as they should be. Only now, when the pendulum of fashion has swung once more, are they enjoying the attention of adventurous purchasers - among them architects and popstars keen to restore them to their former glory. Good examples now command premium prices again. Cluttons Chartered Surveyors currently has a well-preserved example on its books in Bromley, Kent, complete with five bedrooms, a swimming-pool and original 1930s fittings. Offers are invited in the region of £950,000.

The return to favour of Modern Movement houses was confirmed in 1996, when the National Trust took over Erno Goldfinger's 2 Willow Road in Hampstead and opened it to the public. A few have been listed, and a handful of others, including Harding and Tecton's Six Pillars in Dulwich, High Cross house in Devon and Augustus John's Fordingbridge studio by Kit Nicholson, have been skilfully conserved.

Mine looked a little frail when I last visited it. And while, at the time, I was relieved when my parents moved to a Georgian house in Sussex, I now realise that my reactions to my house could have been a way of measuring people. Would they live up to its austerities and to its poetry? Today it is best in my dream, where the house is the perfect backdrop: a primordial villa, sparkling in the sunshine.

The Modern House Today with photographs by Nick Dawe and text by Kenneth Powell, is published by Black Dog (£24.95). The 1930s Home by Greg Stevenson is published by Shire Publications (£4.40).

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