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All Roof, No Wall: Peter Boston, A-Frames and the Primitive Hut in Twentieth-Century British Architecture, c. 1890–1970

  • Elizabeth McKellar

Abstract

A very particular type of modern house in Britain — A-frames of the 1950s and 1960s — emerged from a much longer history of British and Scandinavian-German primitivism centred on the cruck-frame. This article focuses on a small number of architect-designed examples and introduces one of the main proponents of the type, Peter Boston (1918–99). The tension between the A-frame's familiarity as a universal dwelling type and its adoption as a signifier of modernity is a central theme. In the British twentieth-century context, the ‘modern’ included a strong vernacular element, and the new A-frames, which formed part of the ‘timber revival’ of the 1950s and 1960s, were informed by a long-standing interest in the history of cruck-framed construction from the Arts and Crafts onwards, which in turn was part of a wider pan-north European building culture.

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1 Gottfried Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten oder praktische Aesthetik (1860–63; 2nd edn 1878–79), II, p. 298, n. 2, cited in Rykwert, Joseph, On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History (New York, 1971), p. 23.

2 Ibid., p. 33.

3 Bergdoll, Barry, ‘Foreword’, in Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean: Vernacular Dialogues and Contested Identities, eds Lejeune, Jean-Francois and Sabatino, Michelangelo (London, 2009), p. xviii.

4 Powers, Alan, Britain: Modern Architectures in History (London, 2007); Darling, Elizabeth, Re-forming Britain: Narratives of Modernity Before Reconstruction (London, 2007); Whyte, William, ‘The Englishness of English Architecture: Modernism and the Making of a National International Style, 1927–1958’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), pp. 441–56; Harris, Alexandra, Romantic Moderns (London, 2010).

5 Matless, David, ‘Ages of English Design: Preservation, Modernism and Tales of Their History, 1926–1939’, Journal of Design History, 3.4 (1990), pp. 203–12; McKellar, Elizabeth, ‘Populism versus Professionalism: John Summerson and the Twentieth-Century Creation of the “Georgian”’, in Articulating British Classicism: New Approaches to Eighteenth-Century Architecture, ed. Arciszewska, Barbara and McKellar, Elizabeth (Aldershot and Burlington, 2004), pp. 3556 (p. 36); Darling, Elizabeth, ‘“A Live Universal Language”: The Georgian as Motif in Inter-War British Architectural Modernism’, in Neo-Georgian Architecture 1880–1970: A Reappraisal, ed. Holder, Julian and McKellar, Elizabeth (Swindon, 2016), pp. 151–66 (p. 167).

6 Julian Holder, ‘“A Race of Native Architects”: The Architects of Sheffield and South Yorkshire, 1880–1940’ (doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2005), chapter 8.

7 de Zouche Hall, Robert, ‘The Origins of the Vernacular Architecture Group’, Vernacular Architecture, 5.1 (1974), pp. 36, and Julian Holder, ‘From Sheffield to Skansen: “Strange Materials and Curious Methods” in Charles Frederick Innocent, The Development of English Building Construction’, unpublished conference paper for ‘New Light on Vernacular Architecture: Studies in Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man’, Centre for Manx Studies, University of Liverpool, 22–25 June 2011.

8 Holder, ‘Architects of Sheffield and South Yorkshire’, pp. 332–33. Thomas Winder, ‘Half-Timbered Buildings in Hallamshire’, Builders’ Journal and Architectural Engineer, 18 February/25 February 1896, pp. 24–26, 40–42.

9 Holder, ‘Architects of Sheffield and South Yorkshire’, p. 337.

10 Addy, Sidney Oldall, The Evolution of the English House, rev. edn, ed. Summerson, John (London, 1933), pp. 2122.

11 Innocent, C.F., The Development of English Building Construction (Cambridge, 1916), p. 4. See Smith, J.T., ‘Cruck Construction: A Survey of the Problems’, Medieval Archaeology, 8 (1964), pp. 119–51 (p. 138).

12 Lejeune and Sabatino, eds, Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean.

13 Innocent, English Building Construction, p. 5.

14 De Zouche Hall, ‘Origins’, p. 3.

15 Muthesius, Hermann, The English House, ed. Sharp, Dennis (New York, 1987), pp. 1516, originally published as Das englische Haus: Entwicklung, Bedingungen, Anlage, Aufbau, Einrichtung und Innenraum, 3 vols (Berlin, 1904–05).

16 Stamp, Gavin, Edwin Lutyens: Country Houses from the Archives of Country Life (London and New York, 2011), pp. 130–32.

17 Lethaby, W.R., Ernest Gimson: His Life and Work (Stratford-upon-Avon, London and Oxford, 1924), p. 4.

18 Gotch, J.A., The Architecture of the Renaissance in England (London, 1891), p. xiii.

19 Sherriff, Clare, ‘Arnold Mitchell (1863–1944): “Fecundity” and “Versatility” in an Early Twentieth-Century Architect’, Architectural History, 55 (2012), pp. 199235 (pp. 214–16).

20 As quoted in Nathaniel Lloyd, A History of the English House (London, 1931), p. 11.

21 Innocent, English Building Construction, pp. 26–27.

22 Addy, Evolution of the English House; Lloyd, English House, p. 10.

23 The letters included one from the Rector of Scrivelsby, who confirmed that the building was still inhabited and that it had many visitors: London, Royal Institute of British Architects [hereafter RIBA], SuJ 14/2.

24 John Summerson, unpublished autobiography, private collection [hereafter JSA], chapter 5, pp. 20–22.

25 Williams-Ellis, Clough and Summerson, John, Architecture Here and Now (London, 1934), p. 65.

26 De Zouche Hall, ‘Origins’, pp. 3–6. Summerson is listed as a founder member in the Vernacular Architecture Group (VAG) records held at the Borthwick Institute, University of York: see VAG A/1-8 Membership Lists. Summerson remained a member until 1990, a fact confirmed by Nat Alcock (pers. comm.).

27 Architect and Building News, 29 October 1943, p. 430; Country Life, 8 September 1944, p. 430; Architects’ Journal, 15 March 1945, p. 203; Architects’ Journal, 3 May 1945, p. 330.

29 Erten, Erdem, ‘The Hollow Victory of Modern Architecture and the Quest for the Vernacular: J.M. Richards and “the Functional Tradition”’, in Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular, ed. Guillery, Peter (London and New York, 2011), pp. 145–68; Kelly, Jessica, ‘“To Fan the Ardour of the Layman”: The Architectural Review, the MARS Group and the Cultivation of the Middle Class Audiences of Modernism in Britain, 1933–40’, Journal of Design History, 29.4 (2016), pp. 350–65; Kelly, Jessica, ‘Vulgar Modernism: J.M. Richards, Modernism and the Vernacular in British Architecture’, Architectural History, 58 (2015), pp. 229–59.

30 ‘The Functional Tradition’, Architectural Review (January 1950), pp. 1–66.

31 Erten, ‘Hollow Victory’, pp. 157–58.

32 Broderick, Alan Houghton, ‘Grass Roots: Huts, Igloos, Wigwams and Other Sources of the Functional Tradition’, Architectural Review (February 1954), pp. 101–11.

33 Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Structural Anthropology (1958), trans. Jacobson, Claire and Grundfest, Brooke Schoepf (New York, 1963).

34 Broderick, ‘Grass Roots’, p. 111.

35 Powers, Britain: Modern Architectures, pp. 45, 70. For illustrations of these and other examples, see Powers, Alan, Modern: The Modern Movement in Britain (London, 2005).

36 Rykwert, Adam's House, pp. 23, 26–27.

37 Reyner Banham, ‘History and Psychiatry’, Architectural Review (May 1960), pp. 325–32 (p. 330).

38 Ibid., pp. 330–31.

39 Stirling, James, ‘Regionalism and Modern Architecture’, Architects’ Year Book, 7 (1957), pp. 6268.

40 Banham, Reyner, ‘Tradition and Technology’, Architectural Review (February 1960), pp. 93100 (pp. 93–94).

41 The event was at the Bartlett, UCL, 23 March 1970: RIBA SuJ 7/4.

42 Jeremiah, David, Architecture and Design for the Family in Britain, 1900–70 (Manchester, 2000), chapters 4 and 5.

43 Gregory, Robert, ‘Heroism versus Empiricism: Festival of Britain 1951’, Architectural Review, 1235 (2000), pp. 6873; Banham, Reyner, ‘Revenge of the Picturesque: English Architectural Polemics, 1945–65’, in Concerning Architecture: Essays on Architectural Writing Presented to Nikolaus Pevsner, ed. Summerson, John (London, 1968).

44 Ryan, Deborah, The Ideal Home Through the Twentieth Century: The Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition (London, 1997).

45 Fisher, Fiona, ‘Kenneth Wood: Modern Surrey Houses of the 1950s and 1960s’, in Houses: Regional Practice and Local Character, Twentieth Century Architecture 12, ed. Harwood, Elain and Powers, Alan (London, 2015), pp. 156–71 (pp. 161–62).

46 Ideal Home (January 1964), p. 49.

47 Architect and Building News, 14 March 1957, p. 339.

48 Daily Mail Ideal Home House Plans (1962), p. 112.

49 House and Garden (April 1962), pp. 82–83.

50 Fisher, ‘Kenneth Wood’, pp. 161–63.

51 House and Garden Book of Modern Houses (1966), pp. 128–29, 186–87.

52 Harwood, Elain, Space, Hope and Brutalism (New Haven and London, 2015), p. 117.

53 Ibid., pp. 119–20.

54 Alan Powers, ‘6 Bacon's Lane, Highgate, London’, Country Life (25 January 2001), pp. 54–59.

55 For the Capon house, see Clifford, Henry Dalton, New Houses for Moderate Means (London, 1957), p. 52. For the Scott House, see ‘Chalet Among the Trees’, Ideal Home and Gardening (September 1964), p. 61; Harwood, Elain, Guide to Post-War Listed Buildings (London, 2003), p. 444; Harwood, Space, Hope and Brutalism, pp. 140, 145.

56 ‘Chalet Among the Trees’, p. 61.

57 Alan Powers, ‘Obituary: Peter Boston’, Independent, 1 December 1999.

58 Post-War Houses: Twentieth Century Architecture 4 (Journal of the Twentieth Century Society, 2000), p. 80.

59 Information on the practice from Saunders Boston Archive [hereafter SBA]. On the invisibility of certain types of practice, see Brittain-Catlin, Timothy, Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture (Cambridge, 2014), p. 115.

60 Powers, ‘Obituary: Boston’. For additional information on Boston's life and career, I am grateful to Diana Boston, Jon Blair, Bob Bowman and Colin Holmes. In the war, he served in the 4th Division Royal Engineers in North Africa and in Italy. In the latter campaign, he directed the bridging of the Rapido river at Cassino in May 1944, for which he won the Military Cross.

61 Powers, ‘Obituary: Boston’; Dunne, Jack and Richmond, Peter, The World in One School: The History and Influence of the Liverpool School of Architecture 1894–2008 (Liverpool, 2008), p. 54.

62 Powers, ‘Obituary: Boston’; Nick Chapple, ‘C.H. James (1893–1953)’, (thesis for postgraduate diploma in the conservation of historic buildings, Architectural Association, 2011).

63 For other examples, see Neil Bingham, ‘The Houses of Patrick Gwynne’, and Louise Campbell, ‘Against the Grain: The Domestic Architecture of Robert Harvey’, both in Post-War Houses: Twentieth Century Architecture 4, pp. 29–44, 51–60.

64 Harwood, Space, Hope and Brutalism, p. 124.

65 Powers, Alan, The Twentieth Century House in Britain: From the Archives of Country Life (London, 2004), pp. 119–23.

66 Stott, Rebecca, Ghostwalk (London, 2007).

67 Ian Collins, ‘Obituary: Elisabeth Vellacott’, Guardian, 4 June 2002.

68 ‘An Artist's Cottage’, House and Garden (April 1962), pp. 80–81.

69 Alan Powers, ‘At Home with her Art’, Country Life, 12 September 2002), pp. 160–63.

70 Ibid., p. 162.

71 Ibid.

72 See the Mulberry Close website, mulberryclose.wordpress.com/history/ (accessed on 2 December 2015). A Jacobsen house was included in Harling, R., ed., House and Garden Book of Cottages (London, 1963), pp. 120–22, which also featured The Studio.

73 Manley, Christine Hui Lan, Frederick Gibberd (Swindon, 2017), p. 45. Also see Harlow, The Gibberd Garden, Gibberd Archive: 1960 box file of Gibberd's diary. I am grateful to Isabel Whitfield for this reference.

74 Collins, ‘Obituary: Vellacott’.

75 ‘An Artist's Cottage’, pp. 80–81; Harling, Book of Cottages, pp. 90–91.

76 On the widespread incorporation of traditional forms within British modernism, see Harris, Romantic Moderns; Kelly, ‘Vulgar Modernism’, pp. 229–59.

77 Oxford English Dictionary, although the first recorded use is 1915.

78 Elaine Denby, ‘Tradition in Modern Furniture’, Country Life, 20 June 1963), pp. 1496–97.

79 79a Shepherd's Hill survives today, sandwiched between two large apartment blocks. It is untouched in layout and massing, but with a postmodern veneer added in the 1980s by a developer. On the new empiricism, see Banham, ‘Revenge of the Picturesque’, pp. 265–73.

80 ‘Architects’ Own Houses. Peter Boston: A Plan Without a Site is an Idle Dream’, Ideal Home (May 1959), pp. 89–91 (p. 91).

81 Boston, Lucy M., Memories (Hemingford Grey, 1992); Jeremy Musson, ‘The Manor, Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire’, Country Life, 19/26 December 1996, pp. 32–35.

82 Harling, Book of Cottages, p. 12.

83 Powers, ‘At Home with her Art’, p. 163.

84 Bettley, James and Pevsner, Nikolaus, Buildings of England: Suffolk, West (New Haven and London, 2015), p. 413. It is often wrongly claimed that Dowson designed the house for himself: see McKean, Charles, Architectural Guide to Cambridge and East Anglia Since 1920 (Edinburgh, 1982), p. 106, with thanks to James Bettley for additional information.

85 ‘House at Monks Eleigh, Suffolk’, Architectural Review (February 1960), pp. 133–34.

86 Bettley and Pevsner, Suffolk, West, p. 399.

87 Elaine Denby, ‘Looking at Design. Keeping the Home Fires Burning’, Country Life, 17 September 1964), pp. 726–27 (p. 726).

88 Architect and Building News, 2 March 1960, pp. 281–85 (p. 281).

89 McKean, East Anglia, p. 106.

90 Architectural Review (January 1950), p. 30.

91 Gordon, Alastair, Beach Houses: Andrew Geller (New York, 2003).

92 Brine, Giovanni, Carlo Mollino: Architecture as Autobiography (London, 2005), p. 43.

93 ‘Two-Wall House’, Ideal Home (March 1960), pp. 63–70 (p. 66). Architect and Building News, 31 January 1962, p. 161.

94 Ideal Home (March 1960), p. 66.

95 Powers, ‘At Home with her Art’, p. 163. Also see Powers, The Twentieth Century House, pp. 119–23; Powers, ‘Obituary: Boston’.

96 Wirral Borough Archives, WA 1/1/S2766; 1/1/S2984; 1/0/2450. The design was first drawn up in the London office and features contributions from both Peter Boston and David Brock. From 1962 onwards, with the opening of the Liverpool office, it is clear that the latter was principal partner and designer for the project.

97 Harwood, Space, Hope and Brutalism, pp. 139–45.

98 Ainsworth, Roger and Howell, Clare, St Catherine's Oxford: A Pen Portrait (London, 2012).

99 Warburton, Nigel, Erno Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect (London and New York, 2004), pp. 172–73. Howard Colvin related that Jacobsen was willing but was blocked from the commission by Allan Bullock, the master of St Catherine's (pers. comm. from Malcom Airs).

100 Richard Hewlings, ‘A Scholar's Lair’, Country Life, 22 October 2008, pp. 60–63; Powell, Kenneth, Ahrends, Burton and Kolarek (London, 2012), pp. 5758; Pevsner, Nikolaus, Buildings of England: Oxfordshire (Harmondsworth, 1974), p. 339.

101 According to Lionel Wilde, who assisted on the project, the builders were Black and Wilson and the contract was for c. £20,000, a very large sum (pers. comm.).

102 John Krebs and Richard Dawkins, ‘Obituary: Mike Cullen’, Guardian, 23 March 2001; Dawkins, Richard, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (London, 2013), pp. 171–74.

103 Lucy Boston was friends with a Mrs Cullen in the village for whom Peter also carried out work (information from Diana Boston). These commissions also feature in the practice job lists in the Saunders Boston Archive. Sadly the majority of the archive was destroyed with the exception of a few drawings and photographs, mainly for the better-known projects.

104 Henry Bennet-Clark, resident of 3 Mere Road in the 1970s (pers. comm.).

105 See McKean, East Anglia, p. 132.

106 See ‘A Skier's Holiday House of Logical Triangles in the Vermont Countryside’, House and Garden Book of Modern Houses (1966), pp. 186–87.

107 Indeed, Esther Cullen was so attached to the type that, following a move to Australia, she went on to build a similar, smaller A-frame house on stilts in the Daintree Forest, Queensland, in the 1980s. See Dawkins, Marian Stamp in Leaders in Animal Behaviour: The Second Generation, ed. Drickamer, Lee and Dewsbury, Donald (Cambridge, 2010), p. 170.

108 City of Oxford Planning Committee Minute Book, 22 October 1963, p. 141, and 13 October 1964, p. 272, Oxford City Archives, FF4.32 and HH4.33.

109 Banham, Reyner, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Review, 108 (1955), pp. 355–61; Rowe, Colin, ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’, Architectural Review, 51 (1947), pp. 101–04.

110 At the Mong Building for Sidney Sussex College, 1998, the panelling was said to derive from the rhythms of the iambic pentameter (information from SBA via Luke Jacob).

111 This was at the eponymous Boston House, Harpenden, Herts, for the industrialist John T. Rusling. See ‘The Boston Tea Party in a Hertfordshire Sitting-Room’, Ideal Home (June 1960), pp. 56–59.

112 Millon, Henry A., Wittkower, ‘Rudolf, “Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism”: Its Influence on the Development and Interpretation of Modern Architecture’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 31 (1972), pp. 8389; Payne, Alina, ‘Rudolf Wittkower and Architectural Principals in the Age of Modernism’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 53 (1994), pp. 322–42.

113 Similar fenestration was used at Elbury Hall, Devon, 1962: see Jon Wright, ‘Houses and Housing in South Devon by Meryn Seal’, in Regional Practice, ed. Harwood and Powers, pp. 174–89 (p. 186).

114 Powers, The Twentieth Century House, pp. 99, 117–19.

115 Elisabeth Vellacott also adopted the trend for internal greenery with an ‘indoor garden’ shown by the large glass window next to her work area in early views. See ‘An Artist's Cottage’, pp. 80–81.

116 Information from Liz Leaske and Henry Bennet-Clark. It is impossible to verify this as Oxford City Council's planning department cannot locate the relevant files, which may have been destroyed.

117 Harwood, Space, Hope and Brutalism, p. 18.

118 ‘Home at the Mill’, Building, 11 May 1979, pp. 51–56; ‘Turning a Dilapidated Mill into a Home: Ashwell, Herts., England’, International Asbestos-Cement Review (July 1978), pp. 22–27.

119 ‘Peter Boston […] Idle Dream’, p. 90.

120 Ibid., p. 91.

121 ‘Houses That Look After Themselves’, Ideal Home and Gardening (March 1963), pp. 41–47.

122 Venturi, Robert, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd edn (London, 1977), p. 118.

123 Bettley, James and Pevsner, Nikolaus, Buildings of England: Suffolk, East (New Haven and London, 2015), p. 171.

124 McKean, East Anglia, p. 100; greenart.info/greenhouses/Delta/index.html (accessed on 2 August 2016).

125 Building Design, 12 May 1978, p. 19.

126 Ideal Home and Gardening (September 1964), p. 1.

127 Daily Mail Ideal Home House Plans (London, 1975), pp. 68–69.

128 Sabatino, Michelangelo, Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy (Toronto, 2010), p. 196.

All Roof, No Wall: Peter Boston, A-Frames and the Primitive Hut in Twentieth-Century British Architecture, c. 1890–1970

  • Elizabeth McKellar

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