Utopia Lost – The End of History (1900-1914)

With the South African War over, Britain found itself at peace for the early years of the 20th century. The empire was approaching its zenith. Within this scenario, building utopia, often in the novel setting of sub-urbia, was a commonplace ideal.

Inspired by the success of Bedford Park, Bournville and Port Sunlight, Dame Henrietta Barnett emerged as a driving force behind one such utopian vision: Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London.

Laid out on paper in 1906 with the guidance of the town planner George Unwin, the core of the new suburb had been completed by 1914. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner describes it as: ‘The aesthetically most satisfactory and socially most successful of all 20th century garden suburbs’. Dame Henrietta’s expressed wish was to spread ‘the contagion of refinement’.

Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London; G Unwin and E Lutyens, 1908

Its picturesque but robust English style, much influenced by the humane modernism of the Arts and Crafts movement, embodied a prevailing sensibility of comfortable harmony with wealth, power and progress.

In August 1914, war broke out.

In America, modernism at the turn of the century was being embraced with more vigour but with no hint of dysfunction. Thus, for example, in Chicago, where the great fire of 1871 had opened a path to massive reconstruction, the Charnley-Persky house in Lincoln Park, a collaboration between Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, came to be described in 1901 as ‘the first modern house in America’. Wright followed this with his Unity Temple of 1906 and the Robie house of 1910. (It was into this atmosphere of confident engagement with modernity that the war survivor Mies van der Rohe arrived in the 1930s.)

In contrast to London and Chicago, a curious preview of the Modern Movement city appeared in Vienna in 1907. There Otto Wagner designed the urban plan for the huge Am Steinhof hospital with 60 separate buildings, including an iconic church, for up to 2,500 patients. This was 20 years before the Bauhaus School’s Weissenhof estate in Stuttgart and a quarter-century before stripped-down, white-walled Modernist villas appeared in Depression-era Britain. Am Steinhof, of course, was a mental asylum.