[Sheila Kirk with photographs by Martin Charles. Wiley-Academy, England, 2005. $171.95.
Sheila Kirk with photographs by Martin Charles. Wiley-Academy, England, 2005. $171.95.
Most architects today, if they know of Philip Webb at all, know only of the Red House, designed for his lifelong friend, William Morris. Many books tracing the origins of modern architecture start with this, Webb’s first building commission.
In Sheila Kirk’s new study, the first since Lethaby’s biography of 1935, we get closer to the man and his work. Living in an age when style choice for a job seemed to be the badge of your professional contribution, Webb strove for a more fundamental understanding of the architect’s relationship to society.
He admired vernacular buildings and their relationship to “economy and a long maintenance free life” and “believed architecture to be a matter of good building rather than exhibition drawings”.
This led to a deep appreciation of built heritage and the setting up, with Morris, of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
The chapter “Alterations and Enlargements” shows an architect of refined sensibilities working in harmony with existing buildings. His works have their own integrity, not imitating the original. They do not subscribe to the current “carbuncle theory” where the ego of the designer must express the difference at all costs!
His early tussles with the purveyors of public taste in the overheated (monetarily speaking) Royal Borough of Kensington provide a foretaste of today’s planning issues. The studio house that came out of this tussle, and other similar projects around London, gave rise to a building language which others later debased into a style choice and dubbed Queen Anne.
Although not as prolific as many of his contemporaries, he nonetheless completed a large body of work, given his insistence on designing every detail of each building himself.
Webb’s despairing advice as a committed socialist working in a capitalist system still rings true. He told a client who wanted to build a house speculatively: “the better the house, the worse the investment … it might not fetch the cost price if sold.” He went on to explain that “the popular idea was for much show at little cost”.
His work was a great inspiration for the next generation of architects who started the Arts and Crafts movement. His contribution to architecture is profound and the more I learn of Webb, the more I admire the man.
PS How many of us could survive if we didn’t bill our clients until a year after practical completion?