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Maxwell Fry

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

Fry brought a liberal tinge unusual amongst a socialist-leaning movement.

Maxwell Fry Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Copyright

Date:
(1899 - 1987)

 

Nationality:
British

Famous Buildings:
Kensal House, London
Impington Village College, Cambridge
Chandigarh, Punjab, India (with Jane Drew, Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier)

Isolation

Edwin Maxwell Fry was one of the few active Modernist architects in pre-war Britain who was actually British. His long career saw him lay the solid foundations on which British Modernism would expand, and also pioneered Modernist building in the Third World, through his work in Nigeria after the Second World War and in the Punjab, India, with Le Corbusier.

Born in the last year of the nineteenth century, Maxwell Fry was part of the generation of architects who came of age just as it was becoming apparent that British architecture was being left behind by the innovative strands of Modernism developing on continental Europe.

Whereas Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and the architects and designers of the Bauhaus were experimenting with new forms and materials, and exploring new ways to treat space, light and nature in their work, British architecture seemed to be stuck firmly in the Victorian age.

In 1933, Maxwell Fry was a co-founder of MARS (Modern Architectural Research group), the British affiliate of CIAM. This was the body responsible for formulating and promulgating the ideals of Modernist architecture in continental Europe. Coates, Fry and the four other co-founders of MARS were determined to end Britain's isolation from the momentous architectural movement occurring across the English Channel.

Slum Clearance

Wells Coates' main contribution to bringing Modernism to these shores was his Lawn Road Flats (also known as the "Isokon Building") in 1934. An exercise in modernist minimalist living, these flats soon became, like that other great pre-war Modernist block, Highpoint One by Berthold Lubetkin, a haven for middle-class intellectuals. But if the Modernists were truly to achieve their goal of using architecture to improve the lives of the majority of people in Britain, then they would have to demonstrate that they could build housing for workers as well as intellectuals.

With Kensal House (completed in 1937), Maxwell Fry achieved just that. Kensal House represented a tremendous breakthrough for Modernism in Britain.

Commissioned by the Gas Light and Coke Company, which wanted a showcase building to demonstrate the convenience and effectiveness of gas power, the estate was built on the site of an old gasworks in west London.

Fry worked with Elizabeth Denby, a prominent social reformer of the time, to create an estate which would provide tenants with clean spacious housing and with shared amenities such as a creche, a laundry room and a canteen. Housing former slum dwellers, Kensal House was a clear example of what Modernists could achieve, if given the opportunity.

His Impington Village College in Cambridge (built in collaboration with former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius) also served as a pointer for post-war educational architecture.

An Englishman Abroad

The Second World War put a brake on further housing developments like Kensal House, at least for a few years. Maxwell Fry served in West Africa during the war and later advised the Nigerian authorities on town-planning when hostilities ended.

In 1951, Fry and his wife Jane Drew, who had collaborated on a book on architecture in a tropical climate, were invited to help design and build Chandigarh, the new capital of the Punjab in India.

Le Corbusier designed most of the prestigious public buildings in the new city, whilst Fry and Drew oversaw much of the housing.

Unlike many of the early Modernists in Britain, Maxwell Fry was not a socialist. Instead he had a liberal, patriarchal outlook which informed his belief that professional middle class architects like himself should use their skills to help build a better environment for those less fortunate.

As architect of the first Modernist social housing estate in the country, he is assured of his place as one of the most important Modernists in pre-war Britain.

The Modernist architects

 

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