Empire Builders Exhibition at the V&A

Pamela Buxton, RIBA Journal, www.ribajournal.com, February 2014

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

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

So we see George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival design for Bombay University Buildings, the 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 expat at long distances from the security of home might feel comfortable.

Some weren’t architects at all— in fact, at the time the profession was in its infancy — but they were ambitious enough to make the most of the huge opportunities offered by the Empire. The 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 in 1879). Glasgow builder Charles Driver, meanwhile, prefabricated cast-iron structures and exported them around the world, including to a new station in São Paulo.

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

There were, however, some attempts to reflect local building style. Lutyens, for example, drew on Mughal and Hindu elements for his Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) 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. But colonial architecture succeeded best when architects learnt from the local vernacular, as was the case with the imposing garrison church in New Delhi by Arthur Shoosmith, which had thick walls and cool windows designed in response to the climate. By contrast, Charles Voysey’s house for a doctor in Aswan, Egypt lacked a courtyard and proved too hot to be occupied for half the year.

This small display 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 those of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster building all over the world. Both exhibitions are inspired by the recent BBC4 series The Brits Who Built the Modern World.

Empire Builders: British Architects Abroad 1750-1950 runs until 15 June at Room 128a, Architecture Exhibition Space, Victoria & Albert Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 (www.vam.ac.uk).

The Brits Who Built the Modern World runs from 10 February to 27 May at RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1 (www.architecture.com).