On today’s modern becoming tomorrow’s traditional

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, with the new buildings of the Docklands area in the background. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Generations of modernity. The Queen’s House,  the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and behind them, the new buildings of London’s Docklands area. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015


The modernity of yesterday is the tradition of today, and the modernity of today will be tradition tomorrow.

Jose Andres Puerta

When The Queen’s House (1) was built for the wife of King James I in 1619, it would have been considered radical, unusual, and modern in the extreme.

Designed by Inigo Jones — regarded as Britain’s first modern architect — it is the first building constructed in the UK that consciously followed the principles of classical architecture, inspired by the temples and other buildings of ancient Rome and Greece. The Queen’s House now sits alongside Christopher Wren’s Greenwich Hospital (2) (better known now as the Old Royal Naval College) with its baroque Painted Hall, and both co-exist with the modernist glass towers of London’s Docklands.

Yinka Shonibare, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle. Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Yinka Shonibare, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

The interplay of the modern and the traditional-which-once-was-modern is all around us.

I love the giant ship-in-a-bottle created by artist Yinka Shonibare. Using a traditional craft form developed by nineteenth century sailors (3), Shonibare created a very modern work of art in his replica of  HMS Victory. This was the naval ship from which the British hero Admiral Lord Nelson fought the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and on which he died during that battle. The ship’s sails are made from fabric bearing colourful batik designs commonly found in West Africa. By using this fabric, Shonibare acknowledges Britain’s complex colonial past and contemporary issues of immigration, ethnic identity, and cultural appropriation.

Nic Fiddian-Green, Still Water, 2011. Sited at Marble Arch, London. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Nic Fiddian-Green, Still Water, 2011. Sited at Marble Arch, London. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015

Bronze is a traditional sculptural medium, and horses a very traditional subject in art, but Nic Fiddian-Green‘s monumental, 10 metre high horse’s head at London’ Marble arch, is a thoroughly modern take on both form and subject.

The British Library, with St Pancras Hotel, London in the background. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The modernist British Library, with the gothic-style St Pancras Hotel in the background. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The British Library opened in 1998 on Euston Road, London. Designed by British architect Colin St John Wilson, it is the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century. The project took 37 years to complete and was highly controversial, with frequent changes to the design, specification, budget — even a total change of location (4).

The building’s design has been described as minimalist, brutalist, Scandanavian modernist. The Prince of Wales — famous for his loathing of modern architecture — apparently described it as resembling an academy for secret police (4).

The British Library has, as a neighbour on Euston Road, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel (formerly the Midland Grand Hotel). Designed by English Gothic revival architect George Gilbert Scott, the original hotel opened in 1873. It closed in 1935, but was extensively renovated and re-opened in 2011. (6)

The irony of Gothic Revival architecture is of course, that even when it was new, it was never modern.

This post was written for Ailsa’s Travel Theme at Where’s my Backpack. This week’s theme was modern.

(1) The Queen’s House, Wikipedia.

(2) Old Royal Naval College website

(3) Ships in Bottles Association of America

(4) British Library, e-architect.co.uk

(5) Fiona MacCarthy, ‘A House for the Mind’, The Guardian, 23 February, 2008 (online)

(6) St Pancras Reniassance Hotel, Wikipedia.

10 thoughts on “On today’s modern becoming tomorrow’s traditional

    • Hi Raewyn; most of the development in Docklands is pretty new. Same in the city. When we lived in England in the 90s, Canary Tower really stood out on the skyline; now there’s heaps around it. I noticed a lot had changed between my two visits -in September 2013 and then in Feb this year. It’s sad the way the city skyline has become dominated by glass towers, so much you can hardly see the beautiful old buildings like St Paul’s.

      Liked by 1 person

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