Hero of British Architecture
  • Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review by Joseph Goldkamp

At the end of the Second World War, the United Kingdom stood victorious with its allies, but with significant damage to its infrastructure, particularly much of its historic architecture. The necessary effort to rebuild Britain was hindered, however, by the poor state of the economy and the subsequent development of a culture that the historian David Kynaston called “Austerity Britain” in an eponymous 2008 book on the years immediately following the end of the war.

Stephen Dykes Bower
By Anthony Symondson.
English Heritage. Pp. 204. $40

Onto this stage of economic despair and physical ruin came the architect Stephen Dykes Bower. While he worked in the context of postwar Britain, the differences between his designs and those of the vast majority of his contemporaries are drastic. Dykes Bower worked in the Gothic Revival vernacular favored at the end of the 19th century in Britain, while the buildings designed by the majority of his fellow architects fell within the broad spectrum of the Modernist style, which was in line with the postwar worldwide architectural zeitgeist.

While it is generally unfair to categorize all Modernist architecture as unattractive or poorly built, many of the worst examples of the style were built simply because the cost in money and material was low in comparison to restoration or rebuilding. Dykes Bower was uncompromising in his tastes and refused to cut corners or costs, which led to great success in his early work, but mixed to poor results in his later career as he struggled against both ideological opposition to his style and lack of funding for his meticulously designed interiors and exteriors.

Symondson’s biographical introduction to Dykes Bower is illuminating, as the reader sees here how the architect developed and refined his taste in both edifice and decoration. A son of an upper middle class and devoutly Anglican family “motivated by religious, civic, and social duty,” Dykes Bower took an active interest in the details of church and cathedral architecture from early childhood (p. 1). His avocations and further education led him to pay especially close attention to detail and assisted him in developing what Symondson believes to be a sense of exquisite taste.

Symondson devotes the majority of his book to Dykes Bower’s most acclaimed and widely recognized work: the high altar at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the meticulous restoration of Westminster Abbey, and the expansion and renovation of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral. Of these three notable projects, the work done at Westminster is particularly striking, and Symondson devotes a lengthy chapter to this subject. Dykes Bower worked closely with a team of artisans not only to restore but also renew the vigor of the building; that is, he did not hold a slavish devotion to pure restoration, but was keen to embellish upon the existing decoration of the Abbey.

Dykes Bower’s designs at the Abbey and his changes to St. Edmundsbury were generally well received by the public and traditionalists, if not by his fellow architects. Many of his later church commissions were not completed according to plan due to lack of funding or because of the prevailing style in church architecture in Britain at the time. The projects left incomplete often had artwork or appendages added that were superfluous at best or aesthetically destructive at worst. Symondson also notes that many of the architect’s plans were never accepted for construction in the first place.

Dykes Bower was not entirely averse to innovation, and indeed designed an unbuilt parish church that, according to Symondson, “would have been one of the most progressive, as far as planning was concerned,” in all of Britain (p. 109). His attention to detail should not be confused, then, with a slavish devotion to the Victorian Gothic aesthetic into which many contemporary critics pigeonholed his work. While one can

certainly argue against architectural anachronism, Symondson makes a fine case that his subject’s oeuvre was not at all derivative, but innovative within the context of the established tradition of English church architecture.

Symondson places some of the blame for the decline of Dykes Bower’s reputation after his accomplishments at St. Edmundsbury and Westminster Abbey upon various architectural and theological trends in vogue in postwar Britain. The author specifically notes the forces acting on church architecture at the time, namely, the nascent liturgical movement in continental Europe and the rise to prominence of liberal Protestant theology within the Church of England herself.

Nevertheless, despite his diminished reputation as an architect, Dykes Bower’s services remained in high demand due to his refined taste and expertise as a designer of ecclesiastical décor and liturgical vestments. His final major work, the cathedral at Bury St. Edmunds, was completed posthumously and dedicated in 2005 by the Prince of Wales.

While Dykes Bower’s work stands worthy of appreciation and renewed interest, Symondson’s style comes across, at times, as hagiographic: the narrative of Dykes Bower’s career seems to be framed by the notion that he was a martyr for traditional English church architecture, and a victim of the hordes of aesthetic and theological Modernists who were his contemporaries. This stands as the book’s only real weakness. Much Modernist church architecture deserves the kind of reappraisal that Symondson has justly given the work of Dykes Bower, and one hopes books as handsome and well-wrought as this one will continue to come to publication.

Joseph Goldkamp lives in Saint Louis, where he is a writer and consultant for nonprofit organizations.

Image: All Saints’ Hockerill, looking west, by Michael-thorpe (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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