Bricks and morality

William Morris's Red House in Bexleyheath, south-east

Built a few years apart in the 1850s, these two modest houses may not seem to have much in common apart from their date. Henry David Thoreau’s Massachusetts retreat was little more than a hut while William Morris’s Red House now looks to us like a bourgeois Victorian suburban villa. Yet both these buildings share a desire to escape the conspicuous consumption of the industrial revolution and both represent a return to an idealised picture of nature or craft. Both were also, of course, completely deluded and utterly naive but, nevertheless, so massively influential that contemporary architecture would not have been the same without them.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Thoreau (1817-1862) was the archetypal freedom-loving American. He refused to pay his taxes out of disagreement with the Mexican wars and his wonderful essay “Civil Disobedience” (1848) has been an inspiration to everyone from Gandhi to Václav Havel to the Tea Party. Thoreau was an abolitionist and dissenter who took himself off to a retreat in the woods to be amid nature and to escape the city. It was an experiment in living without luxury. A little like today’s raving survivalists he wanted to re-establish the self-sufficiency of the pioneering American dream. He built his own cabin (on woodland belonging to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson) and documented it in his back-to-nature book Walden, thereby setting out the now received route to fame by mythologising your first building in text, a trick every architect from Le Corbusier to Robert Venturi has since picked up on.

His hut is an archetype. A shingled log cabin with a pitched roof and door in the front and a pair of simple sash windows, it is New England personified, all outdoorsy and coarse but still resembling a kind of doll’s house. That’s a good metaphor, too, because this rough cabin in the woods was an image as much as a real artefact. Thoreau spent a single night in jail for not paying his taxes – because his aunt came down to pay them for him. His mother used to pop by the cabin to bring him lunch while he took his dirty laundry to her house a couple of miles’ stroll away. This was a very particular kind of escape, not quite in the league of Marie Antoinette’s little farmhouse but, nevertheless, a city-dweller’s dream.

Henry David Thoreau's hut at Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, as depicted on the title page of an 1875 edition of his book 'Walden'

There is a replica of Thoreau’s Walden (based on the illustration on the front of his book) near the original site in Concord, Massachusetts, and it is, in a way, every bit as real as the original fantasy of escape. The log cabin has become one of the founding myths of America; simulacra stud its cities, from downtowns to theme parks. It remains a potent image.

William Morris (1834-1896), like Thoreau, was a multitasker. A poet, artist, weaver, furniture and wallpaper designer, writer and socialist, he, too, was trying to escape from the modern city and get back to nature. His sympathies, like Thoreau’s, veered towards a kind of well-intentioned, slightly fuzzy anarchism. But his house seems a little more comfortable. Morris’s idea of escape was less about nature (this is, after all, Bexleyheath, a south-east London suburb) and more to create himself a “palace of art”. This was a place to start a new life with his new wife Jane.

A replica of Thoreau's house at Walden Pond State Reservation

Morris had been unsettled by the hideous products he encountered at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 and had set himself the task of renewing design culture. This house, designed with architect Philip Webb, is unusual because of its picturesque irregularity. It has been designed to look like a modest range of buildings that has accreted over time, grown organically. Just as Thoreau’s hut looks back to the founding myth of the pioneers falling back on their own resources, the Red House looks to a kind of yeoman honesty, a mythical, Ruskinian place of joy in labour, of modest local materials and traditions. This is intended to be a moral building, eschewing the obvious outward signs of wealth and quietly pretending to fit in.

Plans for the Red House

Its morality is also conveyed in an honesty of expression. Most Victorian houses were built around a classical façade, which bore little relation to the disposition of the rooms inside. The windows were arranged to create a fine façade, then rooms were juggled around inside to fit the windows. At the Red House, Webb and Morris arranged the rooms in a convenient and generous plan and then put the windows where it made sense to have them. After a century of modernism this may not sound particularly radical – but it was and its influence is still being felt. The Red House still kicks off almost every book about the modern movement.

A window in the Red House

Both Thoreau and Morris conceived their very different dwellings in terms of place and ethics. The hut has a language that is rooted in the New England forest, the Red House one in which its bricks, tiles and timber are tied to the clay earth of southern England. Both may pretend at a purity of function, yet both are products of a distinctly 19th-century nostalgia and it is ironic then that both have had an immeasurable effect on modernism. Almost any clapboarded house in the Hamptons and nearly any Home Counties semi will bear traces of one or both these houses. The stick style that was so popular in the US at the end of the 19th century and the craftsman homes that influenced so much of the contemporary iconography of US domesticity, each owe something to both Thoreau and Morris. And the dim red brick boxes that form the endless contemporary suburban estates surrounding every British town owe much to Morris, although they would have repulsed the great man. Influence is a wonderful thing but even the finest of writers and architects have no control over what exactly it is they might influence.

‘The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln (£12.99)

William Morris

Utopia, faux Tudor and tat

“If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House.”

William Morris propounded the English idea that the house is the embodiment of a life well lived. If the central Europeans were happier in their coffee houses than small apartments, the Italians in a piazza and the French outside a pavement café, the English needed to be at home to feel fulfilled. According to many, including the German-born British architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, Morris’s legacy is the modern movement: the repetitive, mechanical, minimal nature of which Morris himself would have hated. But others think his legacy is the stockbroker Tudor of England’s endless suburbs. He has arguably been partly responsible for the unwillingness of housebuilders to move away from a faux Arts and Crafts picturesque, which Morris would have hated equally.

Interior of the Red House, 1944

It is ironic that the man who imagined a strange hybrid of medieval England, socialist utopia and an end of the tyranny of the industrial revolution is remembered for pioneering industrial modernism and pseudo-historical tat. Nevertheless, his influence has been formidable and the best of his bon mots remain irrepressible. Certainly, his words “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful” have survived with their meaning intact, even if they have long passed into cliché. The socialist designer who spent his life creating products for the very class he despised, the industrialists and exploiters of labour (“ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”), never achieved what he really wanted.

Perhaps more poignant, however, from a driven polymath whose romantic life ended in bitter betrayal, is this particular blend of arrogance and regret: “I half wish that I had not been born with a sense of romance and beauty in this accursed age.”

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