Below is a piece I was asked to write by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as a part of their celebrations to commemorate the centenary of founder Philip Webb’s death. Here it is again for the 8Late readership!
‘More a poem than a home’ – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Like many fans of the architecture from this period, I consider Webb’s first commission to be amongst his most intriguing works. Seemingly spanning the gap between the ends of the Neo-Gothic, and the gradual emergence of what later became the Arts & Crafts, there is a great deal on display at the Red House in Bexleyheath to inspire a young architect such as myself. The house is misleadingly simple in plan form (narrow ranges corridor-and-room wide span outwards from the centrally planned entrance and stair hall) but the attention to detail is rigorous and inventive.
My own design sensibilities are sympathetic to what Webb was able to create at Red House. The honesty of material, the celebration of craftsmanship, the selection of well sourced materials, a delight in the way they come together in a holistic composition, and the rejection of an overtly historicist aesthetic instead pouring his own character and creativity into the spirit of the design.
More difficult to recreate for architects today is the house’s indelible atmosphere of common purpose and shared ideology; a belief in a world that was ready to be changed. The true beauty of the design is in no small part due to the collaboration of designer and client, and the brotherhood of friends and peers that came together in creative unity to realise its construction and furnishing. Although the life that Morris and his contemporaries lead at Red House did not last long, the energy of the ideas that were borne there burnt brightly like a beacon, and resonates still as we commemorate the centenary of Webb’s death.
On a personal level I feel I owe Philip Webb a great deal, as it was through my application to the design competition established in his name that I became acquainted with the educational outreach of the SPAB. Approximately 4 years after that I was delighted to accept the offer of a position on the prestigious Lethaby Scholarship, an opportunity which has boosted my career considerably, and framed much of my day to day thinking about design, conservation and craft ever since.
Visiting the Red House remains a highlight of my shared 9 month tour with my co-scholars. It was an opportunity to inspect those long-admired details first hand, and to lose ourselves in the rhythm and meter of the stanzas of Webb’s design – more a poem than a home.