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.
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.
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 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.