“New Elizabethan”: The Queen’s reign heralded a new era for architecture


Written by the author Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey is a British architecture critic and writer.

After the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne in February 1952, the popular composer Ronald Binge renamed a light and elegant piece that he had originally called “The Man in the Street” the “Elizabethan Serenade”. He seems to have done this to reflect the optimism of the new Age of Elizabeth.

While equating the proverbial “man in the street” with the proclamation of a new queen could be considered an act of lese majesty, Bing was clearly on to something. The Queen was 25 and began her reign in a period of post-war austerity and constant ration books, as well as an optimistic new social deal — fanfare for the common man — underpinned by a national health service. free education and welfare state.

London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1951. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Also, since the British Empire was disintegrating, this was apparently not an age of pomp and circumstance, but of modesty. Of modesty, too, in architecture, where the palatial country houses of Elizabeth I’s England were replaced by saddened but inspired designs such as prefab schools promoted by local government architects. Clearly, the architectural landscape of Queen Elizabeth II’s UK would have been very different.

Opened by King George VI in 1951, the Royal Festival Hall had already set the tone for a new architecture that was at once modern, attractive, elegant and democratic. The setting of the building along a riverside promenade was masterful and yet it catered for everyone from royalty to Ronald Binge the man in the street.

The Barbican Estate in London is an example of social housing that became increasingly common during the Queen's reign.

The Barbican Estate in London is an example of social housing that became increasingly common during the Queen’s reign. Credit: Sue Barr/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

If the queen’s reign had been short, architectural historians may have characterized the new Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth, however, has been the longest-serving of all British monarchs, and over the past 70 years, Britain’s new architecture has changed beyond recognition.

The Brutalist universities, hospitals, multi-storey car parks, art galleries and concert halls of the 1960s could be called the Isabeli New Age. Or the most public concrete housing of that decade, defining constant dew and humidity. Or even the short-lived craze for Minis and miniskirts, for all things plastic and disposable.

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. In the same month, the Queen’s eldest son, Charles, was named Prince of Wales at an investiture ceremony at Caernarfon Castle. Within these medieval walls, Lord Snowdon — London Zoo’s nimble and spectacular bird, designed with Cedric Price and Frank Newby to great acclaim in 1965 — created a theatrical stage for any event. size, pure 60s.
Investiture of Prince Charles Prince of Wales in 1969.

Investiture of Prince Charles Prince of Wales in 1969. Credit: Reginald Davis/REX/Shutterstock

Prince Charles took the oath under a Perspex canopy decorated with a plastic version of the Prince of Wales’ feathered crest (preferably for TV cameras to see). Maybe wearing a plastic raincoat rather than an ermine cape.

If this was the new Elizabethan architecture, then so was the reaction to this modernity, because after the economically depressed 1970s, postmodernism and neoclassical architecture declined. The latter, championed by the Prince of Wales, heralded the renaissance of fancy home decor magazines such as The World of Interiors.
All this was Elizabethan in a way, for it was certainly the restored and enlarged Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Designed by John Simpson and opened by the Queen on her Golden Jubilee in 2002, the new gallery, which includes part of the Royal Collection held in trust for her descendants and the nation, is fronted by an ornate Grecian Doric entrance to the polychromatic galleries.
The Queen walks through the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace with President George W. Bush during a 2003 state visit.

The Queen walks through the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace with President George W. Bush during a 2003 state visit. Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Masons took part in the project; wood carvers; fiber plaster, scagliola, copper and bronze workers; specialist carpenters and painters; skilled blacksmiths and cabinetmakers. It was Elizabethan, but as far removed from 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 on the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames in 2000 before it is dedicated in a ceremony.

The Queen walks on the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames in 2000 before it is dedicated in a ceremony. Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images

And yet high-tech architecture and today’s buccaneering, computer-engineered design is also Elizabethan. A long reign in a rapidly changing world has made it impossible to characterize the new Elizabethan architecture in certain terms.

Still, if you listen to Binge’s “Elizabethan Serenade” with your ears wide open, you might sense some promise of modesty grounded in the quiet grace and good grace that somehow, and so much has changed, writes the new Elizabethan.