A bastion of the architectural establishment in early 20th century Britain, GILES GILBERT SCOTT (1880-1960) fused tradition with modernity by applying historic styles to industrial structures in his designs from the Battersea and Bankside power stations in London, to Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and to the K2 telephone kiosk.
At the top of the splendid Portland stone tomb of the 19th century architect John Soane, his wife and son, in St Pancras Old Church Gardens, north London is a dome is a surprisingly familiar shape. Designed by Soane in 1815 as a monument to his beloved wife, the tomb is one of his most romantic designs, ornate in form and decorated by stone carvings of snakes and pineapples. It is familiar not because of its association with Soane’s family tomb, but because of its influence on the design of the red K2 telephone kiosks which were once a common sight throughout Britain.
The architect who designed the K2, Giles Gilbert Scott, admired Soane’s work and had recently become a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum in London when invited in 1924 to enter a competition to design a public telephone kiosk. The shape of his design was inspired by the central domed structure of Soane’s tomb. By rooting his design in Britain’s architectural heritage, Scott transformed the telephone kiosk from what was then seen as an intimidating symbol of modernity into something that seemed reassuringly familiar. When the wooden models of the competing designs were exhibited outside the National Gallery, Giles Gilbert Scott’s was chosen as the winner.
Scott continued to package modernity in British traditionalism throughout his career. In his inaugural address as president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1933, when Britain was finally succumbing to modernism and the architectural profession was split by battling “trads v. rads”, he advocated a “middle line” of both embracing technological progress and the human qualities of architecture. The “middle line” was illustrated by Scott’s best known London buildings, the power stations at Battersea (1929-1935) and Bankside (1947-1960), where he disguised their industrial purpose behind Gothic facades. Battersea, in particular, became a popular London landmark. Yet in an age when progressive architects such as Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé romanticised technology, Scott’s attempts to popularise industrial buildings by obfuscating their function seemed, at best, conservative.
It is not surprising that Giles Gilbert Scott appeared unable to escape Britain’s architectural tradition as he was born into it. His grandfather George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was the eminent High Victorian Gothic architect of the Albert Memorial, the Foreign Office and the Midland Railways Terminus Hotel at St Pancras Station. His uncle John Oldrid Scott was also an architect, as was his father, the second George Gilbert Scott, who was nicknamed Scott Jnr. A gifted yet tragic figure, Scott Jnr showed youthful promise by designing a series of churches in London and Yorkshire that bridged Victorian gothic and the arts and crafts movement, only to succumb to alcoholism and, eventually, to be committed to a mental asylum.
Born in 1880, Scott was only three years old when his father was declared insane. He later claimed only to remember having met him twice, yet he revered him as an architect. “Grandfather was the successful practical man, and a phenomenal scholar in gothic precedent, but father was an artist,” he observed. Scott Jnr continued to offer advice on his children’s upbringing, suggesting for instance that the boys were educated at a particular school because he admired its architecture, but Scott and his siblings were brought up in Sussex by their dynamic, ambitious mother. She decided that he and his brother Adrian should follow family tradition by becoming architects, and in 1899 she arranged for the 19 year old Scott to start three years of articles with Temple Lushington Moore, one of his father’s former students.
In 1902 Scott entered the competition to design a new Anglican cathedral in Liverpool. He did so independently, working on his drawings at home in Battersea. Both his proposal and Moore’s passed the first round, but only Scott’s went through to the second round. At the age of 22, he won Britain’s most prestigious architectural competition for the “design of a 20th century cathedral”.
The Liverpool project was dogged by difficulties. Concerned by his youth and inexperience, the dean insisted that Scott work with an older architect, George Frederick Bodley, with whom he clashed. After Bodley’s death in 1907, Scott was given sole control, but in 1910 he insisted on reworking the design for the main building, by refining its Gothic style into a simpler, symmetrical structure with a monumental central tower. While in Liverpool, Scott married Louise Wallbank Hughes whom he had met as a receptionist at the Adelphi Hotel. Construction was suspended during World War I, and Scott served as a major with the Royal Marines building sea defences on the south coast. The Liverpool Anglican Cathedral was consecrated in 1924, but construction continued throughout Scott’s life and was finally completed in 1980, some twenty years after his death.
Scott returned to work in Liverpool after World War I. In 1923, he was commissioned to design Memorial Court, a hall of residence at Clare College, Cambridge (1923-1934), which he completed in a Georgian-inspired style. The following year he won the telephone kiosk competition. Traditional though his kiosk was in style, functionally it was very advanced. An ingenious ventilation system was installed using perforations in the dome, and the glass was divided into small panels for speedy replacement in case of breakages. Scott’s original proposal was for a mild steel structure, but the Post Office insisted on changing it to cast iron. It also insisted on painting the kiosks bright red for maximum visibility in emergencies rather than Scott’s suggested shade of duck egg blue. Following protests in rural areas, where people complained that the bright red kiosks looked overbearing in the open countryside, the Post Office agreed to repaint them in green.
Despite the rural complaints, the K2 kiosk was a popular success, and Scott was invited by the Post Office to modify his design in 1930 for the concrete K3, intended principally for country use. He was recalled again to design the K6 in 1935 to commemorate King George V’s silver jubilee. This became the most widely used version of the kiosk with thousands being installed.
As well as these landmark commissions, Scott designed dozens of churches throughout his career, as well as more modest public projects such as monuments and extensions to existing buildings. One of his most conspicuous commissions was as a consultant, rather than an architect, to Battersea Power Station in south London. Charged with making the enormous electricity generating station more appealing, Scott suggested brick as the main material for the central structure and turned the four chimneys – one on each corner – into reassuringly familiar neo-classical columns. The result is surprisingly engaging for such a vast structure, but with the showiness of the Art Deco cinemas then being constructed across Britain.
Scott adopted a more restrained style for his equally monumental University Library (1931-1934) beside Memorial Court in Cambridge, and the Guinness Brewery (1933-1935) at Park Royal in west London. By the start of World War II, he had become one of the most influential architects of the day, like his grandfather. Scott had built throughout Britain and was responsible for the most prominent new buildings in London, Liverpool and Cambridge. During the war he was asked to repair the bomb damage to the House of Commons, and to reconstruct the roof of another historic London building, the Guildhall.
His most significant post-war commission came in 1947 when Scott was invited to design a second London power station at Bankside beside the Thames in Southwark. More austere in style than Battersea, Bankside did not match its popularity until its conversion in 2000 by the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron into the Tate Modern museum. Yet formally and functionally it is the more sophisticated of the two buildings, not least as Scott combined all of Bankside’s chimneys into a single central tower.
Like Liverpool Cathedral, the construction of Bankside continued for the rest of Scott’s life. He designed more power stations at Billingham in County Durham and Hoddlesdon in Hertfordshire, but most of his later commissions were for churches. He was working on the final one, for the Church of Christ the King in Plymouth, when he was admitted to hospital for cancer treatment at the age of 80 in 1960. Scott revised his sketches from his hospital bed up until his death.
1880 Birth of Giles Gilbert Scott as one of six children of the architect George Gilbert Scott Jnr.
1883 Scott Jnr is committed to a mental asylum and rarely sees his children again.
1899 Scott starts his architectural training in three years of articles with Temple Lushington Moore, a former student of his father’s.
1903 At the age of 22 Scott wins the competition to design the new Liverpool Anglican Cathedral.
1906 The construction of his first building – and the first of many churches – is completed, the Church of the Annunication in Bournemouth.
1914 During World War I Scott serves as an officer in the Royal Marines and constructs sea defences along the south coast.
1923 Commissioned to design the Memorial Court hall of residence at Clare College, Cambridge.
1924 Wins a competition organised for the Post Office by the Royal Fine Art Commission to design the K2 telephone kiosk.
1929 Construction of Battersea Power Station, for which Scott is a consultant on design, begins in south London.
1931 Commissioned to design the new University Library in Cambridge.
1933 Advocates a “middle line” between tradition and modernity in his inaugural speech as president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Starts work on the design of the Guinness Brewery at Park Royal, west London.
1935 Designs the K6 telephone kiosk which is installed throughout the country.
1937 Commissioned to design the new Waterloo Bridge in London.
1945 Orchestrates the repairs to bomb damage at the House of Commons.
1947 Begins work on the design of Bankside Power Station.
1953 Collaborates with his brother Adrian on the design of St Leonard’s Church in Hastings.
1960 Giles Gilbert Scott dies in London.
Rowan Moore, Raymund Ryan, Adrian Hardwicke, Gavin Stamp, Building Tate Modern: Herzog and De Meuron and Giles Gilbert Scott, Tate Publishing, 2000
Gavin Stamp, An Architecture of Promise: George Gilbert Scott Jnr and the Late Gothic Revival, Shaun Tyas, 2002
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain