If you had to think of a building that summed up ‘Britishness’, what would you put top of the list? The Houses of Parliament? Buckingham Palace, maybe?
They’re certainly great British symbols and have come to represent the country in their own ways. But architecturally speaking, they’re not quite as British as they seem.
The exuberant ornamentation of the Houses of Parliament, for example, is borrowed from the Gothic styles that originated in medieval France. And the grandeur of Buck House owes much to the ideas of Andrea Palladio, a 16th-century Italian architect.
The truth is that British architecture – even what we consider the most British buildings of all – draws on a broad combination of diverse styles from across the world, stretching back across the centuries.
Thanks to this, we enjoy huge architectural variety in our built environment: from Roman roads and baths to Norman churches and castles, to the great stately homes and houses that reinvented classical motifs, to the Georgian, Victorian and 20th century towns and terraces that make up so much of our urban landscapes.
As ideas from abroad come to Britain, architects through the ages have often put a particular British spin on them.
For example, Georgian architecture from the 18th century – which is often described as the nation’s favourite style for its simple symmetry and pleasing proportions – was a uniquely British take on much earlier Renaissance architecture from continental Europe.
Although it’s in evidence in many places across the country, it’s perhaps most celebrated in Bath, where the sweeping, honey-stoned Georgian frontages of the Royal Crescent and The Circus continue to wow visitors 250 years after their construction.
The style was so successful that it was exported from Britain around the English-speaking world.
The reinterpretation of international styles for British needs is a part of a creative process which is still very much alive.
British architects continue to reimagine traditional designs from afar and repurpose them for local needs.
Take the work of Shahed Saleem, for instance, who has been thinking about how the design of British mosques could be improved to serve communities better.
He doesn’t use traditional minarets and domes, arguing that they have limited functionality in their UK context. Instead he’s seeking to create a new architectural language which reflects British Muslim identity.
His work for the Masjid Alhikmah in Aberdeen features a highly contemporary rectangular design, but uses a repeating star-shape pattern familiar from traditional Islamic geometric styles that make the building recognisably a mosque. It’s also made with granite blocks, honouring the local architecture and materials of Aberdeen, which is known as the ‘granite city’.
By blending influences, he hopes to make buildings more culturally accessible in a way that responds to whole communities, reflecting the UK’s multiculturalism and diversity.
Some of the UK’s most interesting and unusual buildings are not so much adaptations of international styles but full-blown tributes to them.
The fanciful Royal Pavilion in Brighton, for example, revels in its own exoticism, a seaside retreat for George IV that could be straight out of an Indian fairytale. With fluted spires and eastern domes galore, its extravagant exterior is matched by an equally plush interior, including the Long Gallery which is meant to evoke a bamboo grove at twilight.
And rising above the treetops of Kew Gardens in London is the Great Pagoda, built in 1762 when it was the most accurate version of a Chinese building in Europe. Undergoing restoration, it will soon again boast the full complement of 80 golden dragons that originally adorned its 10 roofs.
Nowadays, architecture as a profession is truly international too. Some of the biggest UK firms boast top international teams that have been responsible for many of the country’s most impressive contemporary buildings – such as the Selfridges Building in Birmingham and Hastings Pier, winner of this year’s RIBA Stirling prize for architecture.
The UK’s great diversity buildings and architectural styles demonstrates how much there is to explore in the built environment – and to discover in a career in construction.
It’s also a part of how the construction industry itself is driving to be a truly diverse and inclusive workforce.
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