Making an entrance: part 4

Lucy Greenslade concludes her four part series, ‘making an entrance’.

From the start of the twentieth century, the aesthetics of fashionable London’s domestic architecture were increasingly drawn from the realms of history and – dare I say it? – fantasy. Inspired largely by the Arts & Crafts movement there began a general longing for a specifically ‘English’ style of house-building rooted in a largely imagined past. The Edwardian suburbs and their successors in the 1920s and 1930s sought to deny the urban nature of the modern city and to invent an almost bucolic idyll, culminating in the utopian ‘Garden City’ movement.

Developers decided that their customers wanted to pretend to be living in half-timbered ‘Tudor’ cottages with roses growing up their walls and greenery in view from every window. And so the more make-believe world of London’s outer suburbs came into being.

Edwardian designers and craftspeople expressed themselves confidently in elaborate geometry and a generous use of materials. Skilled labour was plentiful and relatively cheap in the first decade of the new century and house-builders took full advantage. The search was on for something new and eye-catching. One obvious short-cut for door-designers was to invert the traditional proportions of London front doors. In place of designs featuring tall panels above the mid-rail and shorter ones below, novelty could be achieved by raising the mid-rail and elongating the panels below. By the 1920s, the proportions of the classic Victorian front door were regarded as distinctly ‘old hat’.

The ‘Utopia on Thames’ that was one version of Edwardian England
The ‘Utopia on Thames’ that was one version of Edwardian England

In search of that specifically ‘English’ domestic architecture, architects working in London’s suburbs increasingly drew their details and historical references from any and all places and periods of history. It was not unusual for Tudor, Greek, Roman, Dutch, Venetian and Gothic-revival influences to all collide in the same characteristically ‘busy’ design.

London’s twentieth century suburbs were spatially far more generous [some might say ‘wasteful’] than the developments of any previous period. With the market’s preference for semi-detached houses the desire for privacy bordering on isolation became apparent in the separation of entrances. Where previous eras had happily placed front entrances in adjoining pairs along a street of terraced houses; developers in the twentieth century favoured separation. For house buyers, semi-detached houses won hands down over terraced housing. In the classic English ‘semi’, two neighbours share a party wall but their front doors are placed at opposite end of the building.

Neighbours keeping their distance: the classic English ‘semi’
Neighbours keeping their distance: the classic English ‘semi’

In a strange, almost accidental way, in the aftermath of the First World War, the ancient Common Law precept that ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ entered the built environment as a very British foible. In more recent times (and regrettably) another aspect to be recognised in ‘making an entrance’ is that not all callers can expect to be welcomed across the threshold. In practice, it seems, ‘the entrance’ can be at least as much about preserving the privacy of the household as it is about welcoming the unexpected visitor.

Bespoke Front Door

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