COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The upper storeys of the NatWest Bank in Ripon owe something to Tubbs' ideas. (S)
The upper storeys of the NatWest Bank in Ripon owe something to Tubbs' ideas. (S)

David looks at the work of Ralph Tubbs, the designer of the 1951 Festival of Britain’s Dome of Discovery who had earlier published a book, The Englishman Builds, surveying the history of the country’s architecture.

You may have heard of the Dome of Discovery; some of you may be just old enough to remember it. Not ‘The Dome’, that held that less-than-wonderful Millennium exhibition in Greenwich, but the centrepiece of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The Dome of Discovery stood next to the ‘vertical feature’, the Skylon, and housed exhibits that were on the theme of the physical world, its exploration and discovery – so there were, for example, sections on The Sea, Sky, The Land and Outer Space, as well as a Polar Theatre. The Dome, according to a critic of the time, ‘epitomised the production of new thinking, new ideas, a new world, higher standards of design in everything. A new architectural language was born.’

The designer of the Dome of Discovery was Ralph Tubbs, then in his late 30s. He had worked with the architects Erno Goldfinger, Maxwell Fry and Walter Gropius, but before designing the Dome he had, like all the other architects at the Festival of Britain exhibition site ‘built nothing larger than a house’.

The Dome of Discovery, when complete, had the world’s largest span – 365 feet (chosen, Tubbs said, because it was easy to remember); it was constructed of aluminium arches supporting an aluminium covering. It was affectionately known as ‘Ralph’s Tub’.

Tubbs may not have built much, but he was well-steeped in modernist architecture. He was influenced by the Swiss-French architect and theorist Le Corbusier. In 1940 he designed the ‘Living in Cities’ exhibition for the British Institute of Adult Education and the Council for Encouragement of Music and Arts – and published a short book with the same title in 1942. Following its success (it sold an amazing 134,000 copies) the publishers, Penguin, asked him for another work.

The result was ‘The Englishman Builds’, which came out in 1945. Its theme is how buildings convey the attitude of the individual man and of society to their times and conditions.

In many ways the book is a period piece; it is not only influenced by Tubbs’ own interest in new architecture but, inevitably, by the war. It also has a very earnest, not to say didactic, tone – the sort that used to be heard on the BBC’s Third Programme from over-cultivated, slightly too-high-pitched voices.

Nonetheless it is a fascinating, if quirky, survey of English architecture from the Norman Conquest to Tubbs’ own day – and also looks to the future. As he says in his opening chapter, ‘In studying the buildings of England, we shall learn something of the growth and changes in the mind of the Englishman himself’.

The book is cast in seven chapters – Tubbs calls them ‘Scenes’. The first six open with a section called ‘What people were thinking’, in which he sets out, not always with entire success, to assess the mind-set of people through the ages.

Thus the time after the Norman invasion was characterised as a period of savagery and superstition, as well as ‘emotional consciousness . . . stimulated by the call for a passionate love of God, for ardent devotion, for the fear of evil’. Medieval life contained both religious ideals and chivalry, but also discouraged liberal thought; Tudor England encompassed what Tubbs calls ‘The First Great Change-Over’ – a shift towards what we would think of as a modern, more rational, outward-looking and scientific way of thinking.

The period from 1650 to 1800 is characterised as ‘The Age of Classical Convention’, while the reign of Queen Victoria is ‘The First Stage of the Second Great Change-Over’, when industrialisation took over.

Getting to his own time, Tubbs says that the national mood between the two World Wars was inherently unstable and disillusioned. For each of these periods he looks at the buildings that reflect the character of the age and cites some typical examples.

This arrangement, of necessity, breaks down as he looks to the future. ‘The Next Few Years – A.D. 1945 – ‘ begins with ‘What will people be thinking?’.

He says that the country is in ‘The Second Stage of the Second Great Change-Over’ – after the industrial revolutions comes the scientific revolution in which ‘men of science’ have helped to bring about ‘a transition . . . from the private exploitation of the means of production to the responsible participation of the workers.’

This echoes the desire of people like William Morris, who in his most-socialist phase wanted workers to take responsibility of all aspects of their labour. Tubbs sees hope. ‘More people are realising that the work of every individual should bear some relationship to common purpose’, and that ‘should the community sense prevail (as we must assume it will, for otherwise there is no hope), the effect on architecture would be immense.’

In this Utopia, Tubbs believes, buildings would be able to satisfy social needs and that planning would go hand-in-hand with good design. He suggests that modern materials can be used side-by-side with traditional techniques, and that prefabrication can, if carefully controlled, provide benefits, though not at the expense of individuality in design.

Above all, Tubbs calls for the architecture of the future to have harmony in form, proportion and spatial interest. As he rightly says, ‘no richness of texture or detail . . . can ever compensate for weakness in the fundamental proportions of a building.’

‘The Englishman Builds’ is, in the end, an optimistic book – as you might expect at the end of a world wWar. Tubbs believes that ‘we will achieve a place among the great architectures, if only we have a set of values that are not entirely materialistic, if we have faith in the Spirit of Mankind, if we have learnt the power of discrimination’.

Seventy years on, can we say we have reached Tubbs’ Utopia? It’s probably safe to say that the jury is still deliberating on that difficult question.