architecture

'New Elizabethan': The Queen's reign heralded a new era for architecture

Published 17th September 2022
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 27, 2004:  Queen Elizabeth II Stands By A Replica Model Of The New London Stock Exchange Building.  The Queen, Who Was Accompanied By The Duke Of Edinburgh, Formally Opened The New Building By Switching On 'the Source,' A Specially Commissioned Artwork Reflecting The Nature Of Financial Markets In The Electronic Age.  (Photo by Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images)
Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images
'New Elizabethan': The Queen's reign heralded a new era for architecture
Written by Jonathan Glancey
Jonathan Glancey is a British architecture critic and author.
After Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in February 1952, the popular composer Ronald Binge changed the name of a light and graceful piece he had originally titled "The Man in the Street" to "Elizabethan Serenade." He did this, reportedly, to reflect the optimism of the new Elizabethan Age.
While equating the proverbial "man in the street" with the proclamation of a new queen might be considered an act of lèse-majesté, Binge was clearly on to something. The Queen was 25 years old, and began her reign in an era of continuing postwar austerity and ration books that, equally, was characterized by an optimistic new social deal -- a fanfare for the common man -- underpinned by a national health service, free education and the welfare state.
London's Royal Festival Hall in 1951.
London's Royal Festival Hall in 1951. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Moreover, as the British Empire dissolved, this, it seemed, was not an era of pomp and circumstance, but of modesty. Of modesty, too, in architecture, where the palatial country houses of Elizabeth I's England were superseded by such unassertive yet inspired designs as the prefabricated schools rushed up by local government architects. Evidently, the architectural landscape of Queen Elizabeth II's United Kingdom was to be very different.
Opened by King George VI in 1951, Royal Festival Hall had already set a tone for a new architecture that was at once modern, inviting, elegant and democratic. The building's setting along a riverside promenade was magisterial and yet for everyone, from kings and queens to Ronald Binge's man in the street.
The Barbican Estate in London is an example of the social housing that became increasingly common early in the Queen's reign.
The Barbican Estate in London is an example of the social housing that became increasingly common early in the Queen's reign. Credit: Sue Barr/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images
If the Queen's reign had been brief, this may well be how architectural historians would have characterized the New Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth, however, has been the longest serving of all British monarchs, and over the past 70 years new British architecture has changed beyond recognition.
The New Elizabethan era might well be spoken of in terms of the Brutalist universities, hospitals, multistory parking lots, art galleries and concert halls of the 1960s. Or of that decade's concrete public housing, with its continual dew and defining damp. Or even the short-lived craze, emerging with the Mini and the mini skirt, for all things plastic and disposable.
In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. That same month the Queen's eldest son, Charles, was declared Prince of Wales at an investiture ceremony held at Caernarfon Castle. Within these medieval walls, Lord Snowdon -- whose lightweight, see-through aviary at London Zoo, designed with Cedric Price and Frank Newby, had been opened to great acclaim in 1965 -- created a theatrical setting for the event that was, by any measure, pure '60s.
The investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969.
The investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969. Credit: Reginald Davis/REX/Shutterstock
Prince Charles took his oath under a Perspex canopy (all the better for television cameras to see through) adorned with a plastic version of the Prince of Wales' feathered emblem. He might have worn a plastic raincoat rather than an ermine cape.
If this was new Elizabethan architecture, then so, too, was the reaction to this modernity as, after the economically depressed 1970s, postmodernism and neoclassical architecture took a bow. The latter, championed by the Prince of Wales, was heralded by a revival of chintz and stately home decor magazines like The World of Interiors.
All this was somehow Elizabethan, too, as -- most certainly -- was the restored and enlarged Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Designed by John Simpson and opened by the Queen during her Golden Jubilee in 2002, the new gallery, housing part of the Royal Collection held in trust for her successors and the nation, featured a chaste Greek Doric entrance fronting polychromatic galleries.
The Queen walks through the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace with President George W. Bush during his 2003 state visit.
The Queen walks through the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace with President George W. Bush during his 2003 state visit. Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The project involved stonemasons; wood carvers; fibrous plaster, scagliola, copper and bronze workers; specialist joiners and painters; blacksmiths and skilled cabinetmakers. It was Elizabethan, yet as remote in spirit from pre-fabricated schools and Perspex royal pavilions as John Simpson's style was from the contemporary "high-tech" architecture of Norman Foster and the late Richard Rogers.
The Queen walks the Millennium Bridge across the River Thames in 2000, before dedicating it in a ceremony.
The Queen walks the Millennium Bridge across the River Thames in 2000, before dedicating it in a ceremony. Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images
And, yet, high-tech architecture and today's buccaneering, computer-morphed design is Elizabethan, too. A long reign in a rapidly changing world has made it all but impossible to characterize New Elizabethan architecture in any certain terms.
Even so, if you listen to Binge's "Elizabethan Serenade" with ears wide open, you might just sense something of a promise of modesty underpinned by quiet grace and well-mannered elegance that somehow, and despite so much change, still spells New Elizabethan.