The name William Morris now conjures up a certain sweetness suggesting abundant English gardens bursting with life: flowers and fruit of every desirable variety, their stems intertwined with the leaves and stalks of other plants, producing the carefully contrived complexity that we could imagine were the gardens of Kelmscott or other places in his memory. The wallpaper and fabric designs are now what he is most remembered for. He has become part of the sense of England as a green and pleasant land, part of that veritable industry that helps maintain England’s image of itself and the image that it likes to project to the world.
And scratch the surface a little more, delve a little deeper, and this sweet image is maintained: his invocation of nature was not simply some commercial marketing exercise but reflected a desire to re-establish a direct and truthful relationship with nature as the English detached themselves from their previous rural existences, living their lives in the smog, grind and often squalor of large cities. A mission to save people through a thoughtful, continuous complete immersion in the non-human: uncorrupted nature.
With all this in mind, it comes as a bit of a shock to visit the only house he had a hand in designing for himself: the Red House in Bexleyheath in southeast London. True, there are vast walls of his famous wallpapers, and there are carefully contrived features: the little conical cover over the water well, the equally pointy tops to the newel posts on the stairs, or the oriel window with its corbelled brick base an inversion of the abundantly steep roofs above. All these add to a sense of playfulness and breaks down the overall form. But what about the form! And the scale! And the massing!
There is an immediate sense of vast boxy over-scaled warehouse-like spaces; spaces that lack the intimacy we have come to expect in a home. Enticing decorative elements are added where they should be: elaborate arches above doors, or complex fireplaces all in red brick of course. But these often sit as isolated features not linked to other parts except perhaps by a vast surface of the wallpaper or some feeble timber strips. Some spaces such as the main dining room with its huge furniture piece doubling as a minstrel gallery, only works as a composition because the space has a decorative piece that is of a scale and type required.
Some of this could have been the way the building is now presented, perhaps not the original condition. Some of it could be the inexperience and youthfulness of the designers – Morris and his friend Phillip Webb, both in their 20s. Webb, in later life an accomplished architect, took no pride in this early work. But chunkiness, the bulkiness and the scale was not simply an accident There was intention and thought behind the design not matter how poorly realised it may have been.
The most startling thing about the house at the time, and influential in the longer term, was the uncompromising pursuit of honesty: the use of common red bricks as would be found in the lesser houses in the countryside or worse, barns and sheds, here used unapologetically as the main building material. Bricks were not covered-up and made to appear as something else, most commonly stone, but presented as they are, with all their intrinsic earthiness, a reflection of the local clay deposits and brick-making traditions. Originally attractively positioned in farmland, itself part of an apple orchard, Red House is now surrounded by its 20th century progeny, all unashamed about their bare brick walls – refer images.
But there was more than this appeal to honesty going on in the minds of the designers. They wanted more than the cosiness of a suburban bungalow. Perhaps inspired by the volume of spaces in medieval castles or those of an ancient barn, they sought strength, force and even power in their building. They wanted the building to be something beyond its creators. Its size and solidity would hold people’s lives within it, firmly and comprehensively. The house would be experienced as strong and directing; as a permanent unyielding independent force.
In doing this, it wasn’t simply the human world that they had in mind. They wanted to evoke something of the strength and force of nature. Nature was not simply birds skipping lightly around the flowers in some intimate sunny corner of a well-protected garden surrounded by high garden walls and a solid house. It was much more, and a proper truthful engagement with nature meant that we should engage with this comprehensive view of the natural world.
Ten years before this house was built, the famous art critic, John Ruskin, published The Seven Lambs of Architecture, a publication that made his name and was a revelation to romantics such as Morris. One of these lamps or guiding principles was ‘power’. For a building to move us, to create a sense of awe or ongoing impressiveness, Ruskin thought that it must have a certain majesty in its features and forms, so that we feel that we are in the presence of a great spiritual power. Through his innumerable trips to the European Alps (typically on his way to the stones of Venice and other parts of northern Italy) and the sense of awe that these mountains provided, he grasped this extreme sense of nature and a need for this to be part of any honest human art.
Despite mountains being obviously large, power was not simply about size. It was about the context or position of the building and the way the form was arranged or articulated. Morris and Webb dutifully followed this lamp as they attempted to follow the other six (or at least those that appealed this them*). In particular, the achievement of power was said to be about continuous lines. One visible bounding line needed to extend from top to bottom and from end to end. The whole mass needed to be grasped as one entity. To break up the form, especially the roof elements, was to lose power. Not only is the Red House an imposing building with external wall and roof heights that successfully diminish figures standing beside them, but the continuous roof profile can easily suggest a mountain ridge, especially when viewed in the deep shadows as you enter from the north on a sunny day – see image.
Red house was an attempt to ignite full range of emotions from gentle unforced sweetness, to the refined beauty of abstracted forms and curves, to the savage, brutal and even ugly. This was deliberate ugliness, in the sense of being harsh and unforgiving just as a mountain obstructs any easy human habitation and fills climbers with a sense of fear and awe. The designers wanted to feel that emotion in their building. Birds, fruits and swirling vines alone could distract us from the a more fundamental sense of what is below and beyond us including the deep geological layers whether they are experienced as a gently rolling well-worn upper surface in England or the massive jagged uplifted forms of the Alps. This house was a celebration of ugliness; an attempt to bring it forward as a necessary correction or balance to the other more familiar emotions or conditions associated with houses. Red House may have contributed to the construction of many a massive Victorian mansion in England and elsewhere, but it is certainly a contrast with the flattened horizontal buildings of the modern era. And it contrasts with modernist brutalism of the 60s and 70s which was ‘power’ fuelled by reinforced concrete (and ultimately cheap coal-fired energy). This power in brutalist buildings too often seems to be a single emotion propellant, and lacks the full emotional range of buildings that was at least attempted in a house such as the Red House.
But of course we still have the questions: is it necessary to evoke power in a building and are mountains the only natural phenomenon to have this power? Was it Ruskin’s and his acolytes’ experience of western Europe alone that limited their sense of nature? When other followers of Ruskin, notably Frank Lloyd Wright and others around Chicago, came to deal with the strength of nature, it was the vast plains of the mid-west that they referenced in their flat tiered roofs. And to go further afield, perhaps it would be better to follow the example of Japan or China and dismiss the value of physical scale alone, which after all is an illusion of the mind, and instead, create the sense of the power of a mountain as being something linked intrinsically to its natural context. This can be done by carefully positioning well-chosen rocks in a garden setting close to a delicately constructed house, whose fragility by itself adds much to the sense of potentially overwhelming external power. The rocks and gravel create a scene of mountains framed or foregrounded by a fast flowing river and the human element included as a rock as a bobbing boat.
* Being less religiously inclined than Ruskin, the lamps of sacrifice (dedication of their craft to God as proof of their love and obedience) and possibly obedience (rejection of originality for its own sake and a compliance with existing English traditions) may have been less important to them.