The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Buildings of England: Suffolk West and Suffolk East

James Bettley and Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press, 800pp/680pp, £35 each)

Reviewed by Alan Powers

Suffolk is known for its magnificent medieval churches, and for its well-preserved small towns and villages, whether close to the indented and often bleak coastline, or in the agricultural hinterland. In his much-expanded Pevsners (not much revised since 1961) James Bettley has given even-handed coverage to the many varieties of twentieth century architecture in Suffolk and revealed much that has been hidden from view.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the county was remote and economically depressed, with relatively little to show architecturally, apart from Glencairn Ogilvie’s fantasy holiday village at Thorpeness, and some eccentric bachelors restoring ancient buildings such as Little Hall, Lavenham (by and for the Gayer-Anderson brothers in the 1920s), or Butley Priory Gatehouse, by W D Caroe (1927) for Montague Rendall. After the Second World War, whose concrete relics of pill-boxes and tank traps are still present along the coastal belt, a greater quantity of new building included the beginning of modernism, and also some notable examples of the survival of traditionalism. Raymond Erith has no major building in Suffolk, although interesting minor ones. Donald McMorran and George Whitby built Shire Hall in Bury St Edmunds as a group of associated buildings forming a campus (1962-68). The former County Library has recently been listed, while the unlisted main building is being converted into a Premier Inn. St Edmundsbury Cathedral stands a short distance away. From the early 1950s, Stephen Dykes Bower began to implement his scheme for the enlargement of the late medieval nave of St James’s church, with results that were original, although in no way Modern. The choir was complete, and joined to the nave with the base of a new lantern tower and only one transept, when work stopped in 1970s. Owing to Dykes Bower’s legacy in 1993, it was possible for his last assistant, Warwick Pethers (working as the Gothic Design Practice with Hugh Mathew, a veteran of Dykes Bower’s office) to complete the tower to an altered design (forming the front cover of the West Suffolk volume) and to fill in other missing parts. The work, seen by C20 Society members on a series of visits, was exceptional not only in giving continued life to Gothic ideals and forms, but also in being built almost entirely by traditional methods.

Modernist architects have often been successful in catching the spirit of the broad landscape and its typical materials of brick and timber. Even large scale intrusions such as the Post Office Engineering Research Station at Martlesham by PSA (S Spielrein) and the two Sizewell nuclear power stations (Gibberd and YRM) have somehow bedded in, while John Weeks’s estate village at Rushbrooke (1955-63) was followed by the houses that John Penn built in the 1960s in the Sandlands zone east of the A12, a developing series well-suited to the temper of the landscape. Philip Dowson’s Long Wall at Long Melford and H T Cadbury-Brown’s 3 Church Walk, Aldeburgh, both of 1964, are sophisticated in their disciplined simplicity. Dowson’s practice, Arup Associates, set a new standard for sensitive historic conversion at Snape Maltings (1967), while Peter Collymore’s Red House Library (1964) for Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears is distinguished in its combination of intimacy and openness of plan.

Local practitioners Birkin Haward and Peter Barefoot, both based in Ipswich, designed buildings of all types, including their own houses in the town. Michael Hopkins, who has longstanding holiday connections with Suffolk, has built in Bury St Edmunds both at the start of his career and more recently, while the patronage of Adnams Brewery has contributed exemplary business and residential buildings to Southwold (by Ash Sakula and Aukett Fitzroy Robinson)

There is a trail of private house commissions now usefully logged in the revised Pevsners and offering us new scope for visits. The final picture page of East Suffolk wittily contrasts the fantastical Belle Grove Farm at Westhall (2007-10)by Nick Fisher and Nigel Purdy (how Roderick Gradidge would have loved this) with MVRDV and Mole Architects’ supercool Balancing Barn at Thorington for Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture, 2009-10.