Pioneering architecture: the best of Frederick Gibberd

Until recently, very little has been written about the architect, planner and landscape architect Sir Frederick Gibberd.

This is surprising, since he designed a number of significant buildings during the twentieth century, many of which are now listed.

At the beginning of his career, Gibberd was a pioneer of modern architecture. After the Second World War, he led the way in striving for a softer, ‘English’ style by placing emphasis on the visual aspects of design, reintroducing picturesque principles and using traditional materials. By the 1960s and ‘70s, his ‘obsession’ with the total environment was paramount; however, his design approach and construction and material choices attracted negative publicity from the architectural press.

It is difficult to pigeon-hole Gibberd as an architect of one particular building type or style. In a new study, Christine Hui Lan Manley explores the sheer range of Gibberd’s work, challenging some of the criticism and reassessing his reputation, to show that he does indeed deserve a place in our narrative of twentieth-century modern architecture.

Here we look at 5 of the best Gibberd buildings and consider what connects these diverse but remarkable projects:

1. Pullman Court, Streatham Hill, 1933-5

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Pullman Court, Streatham Hill, London © Historic England Archive DP178003

Designed in 1933 for furrier and property developer William Bernstein, Pullman Court was Gibberd’s first significant building. He selected a long narrow site for the scheme in Streatham and designed a series of blocks ranging from three storeys at the front (which were set back to reduce the impact of noise from the main road, and to preserve a row of existing trees), to seven storeys at the rear.

The blocks create a series of enclosed spaces, which demonstrate Gibberd’s ability to conceive a total environment comprising the three elements of built form, spaces between buildings and landscape.

Pullman Court was one of the first International Style buildings in the country. It was Grade II listed in 1981 and upgraded to II* in 1997.

2. The Lawn, Mark Hall North, Harlow, 1950-1

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The Lawn, Harlow © Historic England Archive DP159928

Gibberd designed a masterplan for Harlow New Town in 1947. The Lawn comprises a ten-storey point block (where flats are served from a central circulation core) and a smaller three-storey block (to give a human scale to the housing group). The warm tones of the buff and red brick and the sculptural form of the block create a softer appearance than at Pullman Court. Gibberd also took great care to integrate the new buildings with the existing landscape, placing the point block in the midst of several mature Oak trees, to further soften the overall picture.

The Lawn is one of the first examples of post-war Swedish-inspired ‘soft’ English modern architecture and represents the best of British housing in the early 1950s. Both the ten and three storey blocks, as well as the adjoining walls Gibberd incorporated were Grade II listed in 1998.

3. Clock Tower, Chrisp Street Market, Lansbury, 1952

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Clock Tower, Chrisp Street Market, London © Historic England Archive DP137958

The Lansbury neighbourhood in Poplar was Gibberd’s idea for a ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition, part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, which celebrated the British contribution to science, technology, architecture and the arts. It was hoped that it would also boost national morale after the war and subsequent years of austerity.

At Lansbury, Gibberd designed the market square, a pedestrianised shopping precinct, maisonettes, and two pubs (Festival Inn and Festive Briton). He designed a clock tower at the south-eastern corner of the square; it served as a vertical accent to give visual variety to what would otherwise be a very horizontal scheme, and also served as a viewing tower – a ‘practical folly’ that could give pleasure to the people. He cleverly designed two interlocking reinforced concrete staircases which met at the viewing platform at the top. The criss-crossing staircases are expressed on the external faces, giving the tower its striking appearance.

The clock tower and Festival Inn were listed Grade II at the end of October 2017.

4. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, 1960-7

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The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool © Historic England Archive DP083309

Gibberd won an international competition in 1960 to design a Roman Catholic cathedral for the city of Liverpool. Edwin Lutyens had previously designed an impressive classical cathedral for the site on Mount Pleasant in 1930. Construction began in 1933 and work on the crypt continued until 1941, but by the end of the war, the estimated building cost had escalated from £3 million to £27 million. Adrian Gilbert Scott’s scaled-down design in 1953 also proved too expensive; therefore, a competition was launched in 1959.

Gibberd’s winning design comprised a circular space with a conical roof, topped with a tapering cylindrical tower. The tower is placed above the sanctuary, expressing externally the focus of the cathedral. Of great importance to Gibberd, however, was the need to address the existing urban context. He took the opportunity to give the city a second ‘crown’; the tower of his design relates to Liverpool’s first ‘crown’ – Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican cathedral and the two are connected  aptly by Hope Street.

The cathedral is truly spectacular, both inside and out. It was listed at Grade II* in 1994. The adjoining crypt designed by Lutyens in 1933-40 was listed in 1975.

5. London Central Mosque, Regents Park 1967-77

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London Central Mosque, Regents Park © Historic England Archive DP148133

Gibberd also won the international competition (in 1969) to design London Central Mosque, impressively beating 51 other entries, many from Islamic Countries. In accordance with competition requirements, he incorporated what he believed to be the most characteristic architectural forms of Islam: the four-centred arch and dome. The latter, which he clad in gold-anodised aluminium, was designed in composition with a 44m-high concrete minaret, included for its symbolic importance. The building fits sympathetically into its surroundings in Regent’s Park, its mass and scale, as well as its materials, have been carefully designed in relation to the neighbouring terraces designed by John Nash.

Frederick GibberdFrederick Gibbered by Christine Hui Lan Manley is available to purchase from the Historic England Bookshop 

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