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December 2014


William Butterfield and Denys Lasdun: Two Hundred Years of Architectural Endeavour

This year sees the bicentenary of the birth of the architect William Butterfield and also the centenary of the birth of fellow architect Sir Denys Lasdun. In celebration of both architects we invite you to take a closer look at some of their buildings and what links these two architects born a century apart.

William Butterfield’s most famous buildings are often denoted by a striking, if sometimes overwhelming, use of colour, geometry and patterns. They have been described as ‘streaky bacon’ or ‘holy zebra’ styles due to the stripey effect and Butterfield’s work predominantly being ecclesiastical buildings. In marked contrast Lasdun’s most recognisable buildings have more muted colours and simpler geometric shapes. Lasdun favoured layers of horizontals projecting from deep recesses of shadow and glass. At first glance these two seem worlds apart but if you look closer this is not the case.

William Butterfield

Butterfield was born on 7th September 1814 in London, the second of nine children born to William Butterfield, a chemist and businessman. The family were non-conformists. Butterfield would later covert to Anglicanism, a decision which profoundly influenced his later life and work.

At 16 Butterfield was apprenticed to Thomas Arber, a builder in Pimlico. Two years later he embarked on his architectural training with E.L. Blackburne. Blackburne was an antiquarian architect, and in his early years Butterfield studied medieval architecture. He also spent a short time working for the Greek revivalist architects William and Henry Inwood. These early experiences may have influenced his interest in Gothic Revival architecture, a style influenced by medieval architecture. In 1840 he set up his own practice in London.

Butterfield is described as an English Gothic Revivalist. His buildings are well known for their use of different coloured stone, brick and geometric designs. In 1884 he won the Royal Institute of British Architects Royal Gold Medal ‘for his revival of Gothic architecture’. From 1840 until his official retirement in 1895 Butterfield designed hundreds of buildings. In England alone there are over 300 examples of his work that are protected as Listed Buildings. Most examples of his work can be found in Britain, but he also worked on cathedrals in Adelaide and Melbourne. Butterfield is not only known for his architecture. He also designed metalwork, some of which can still be seen at All Saints, Babbacombe. His architecture has not always been appreciated. In 1877 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to Butterfield about his architecture admitting that ‘I do not think this generation will ever much admire it’.

William Butterfield never married and died in London on 23rd February 1900 at the age of 85.

Cotham Church

Built in 1842-43, Cotham Church (formerly known as Highbury Chapel) is thought to be Butterfield’s first commission. It was paid for by his uncle, the tobacco industrialist WD Wills. It is perhaps unsurprising that his first commission was a non-conformist chapel, given Butterfield’s upbringing.  Yet it was to be the only one that he designed. He converted to the Anglican Church and most of his ecclesiastical work would be on Anglican churches and cathedrals.

Built in the Perpendicular Gothic Revival tradition it is an early if somewhat unusual example of this style for a non-conformist chapel. Compared to some of Butterfield’s later works it seems toned down with a fairly simple colour scheme. The building was extended and altered in the 1860s by E W Godwin and further alterations were carried out c1890. As a result it can be difficult to imagine how the original Butterfield building might have looked.

In the 1970s the building was bought by the Church of England in an effort to save this early example of Butterfield’s work. It was converted into an Anglican Church and is still in use. It is Grade II* Listed.

Cotham Church

Cotham Church © Ms Ruth Povey. Source English Heritage

Keble College, Oxford

Although most of Butterfield’s commissions were for ecclesiastical buildings, he designed other buildings too. One of the best-known is Keble College, Oxford. The college was founded in honour of John Keble, a leading member of the Oxford Movement. The Oxford Movement argued for the reinstatement of lost Christian traditions and for High Church Anglicanism. This eventually included a move to Gothic style church architecture. Butterfield’s style encapsulated the High Anglican ideals of the movement and so was felt to be the best choice of architect. He worked on the college from the late 1860s and through the 1870s. His distinctive use of multicoloured stone and geometric designs are very conspicuous in the Oxford College landscape. He also broke with the traditional layout of college rooms, arranging them around corridors rather than along staircases.

The exterior of the building bears a resemblance to the New Schools (also known as New Quad) at Rugby School which Butterfield designed and built between 1867 and 1870.

Keble College, Oxford

Keble College, Oxford  © English Heritage

Rugby School Chapel

In 1872 William Butterfield extended and remodelled the chapel at Rugby School that had originally been built in 1820. It was the fifth of Butterfield’s projects at the school. Only the west end of the 1820 chapel remained largely intact although this was replaced later in the 19th century with a design by Sir Thomas Jackson, after Butterfield had retired.

It is a fine example of Butterfield’s use of colour and geometric patterns in brick, stone and tile. The walls of the chapel are in his classic style of red brick separated by horizontal lines of cream stone decorated with geometric motifs. The purple and cream striped columns of the nave support a white ceiling with contrasting black beams decorated with white geometric lines. The floor is a geometric pattern of terracotta, black and white tiles. With so much decoration it is almost too much to take in.

The chapel has numerous plaques dedicated to former pupils and staff including the mathematician Charles Ludwig Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) and the poets Rupert Brooke and Arthur Hugh Clough. Thomas Arnold, the most famous of all of Rugby’s headmasters is buried in the chapel. Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, was greatly inspired by Thomas Arnold and visited the chapel to meditate at Arnold’s grave.

The chapel is still in use today by the school and is one of the buildings Lasdun credits for inspiring his interest in architecture (see below).

Rugby School Chapel

Rugby School Chapel. Reproduced by permission of Rugby School Archives

Sir Denys Lasdun

Sir Denys Lasdun was born on 8th September 1914, one hundred years and one day after the birth of William Butterfield. He was the son of Nathan (later Norman) Lasdun, an engineer and businessman, and Julie Abrahams, a musician. Lasdun studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture between 1932 and 1937. His first project, in an arts and crafts style, was undertaken in 1934 on a house in Oxshott, Surrey. However Lasdun is best known for his post-war modernist architecture. His 1960s ‘ziggurats’ at the University of East Anglia and the National Theatre on Southbank are perhaps two of his most recognisable pieces of work.

In 1976 Lasdun was knighted and in 1977 he won the RIBA Gold Medal 'in recognition of meritorious Modern buildings and their architects at a time when public appreciation of contemporary architecture is at a low ebb'. This perhaps echoes the lack of appreciation of Butterfield’s work both during and after his lifetime. In the 1990s he worked on extensions to two of his earlier creations, the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg and the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Sir Denys Lasdun died on 11th January 2001 in London at the age of 86.

Royal College of Physicians

Built between 1960 and 1964 the Royal College of Physicians was designed to combine every day functionalism with the ceremonial needs of the college. It was built to replace earlier accommodation on other sites and needed to compliment the adjacent Regency villas and terraces by the well known architect John Nash. These villas and terraces would have been inspired by Classical Greek and Roman forms.

The building is constructed of a pre-stressed concrete clad with very pale grey porcelain mosaic (in two different patterns) and dark blue engineering bricks. Perhaps its most striking feature is the airy square central staircase. Lasdun deliberately designed the building so that college officers would to pass through the staircase hall in full regalia whilst marching between the censors’ room and the great library.

The building is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Wright was one of Lasdun’s favourite architects. However the building has also been likened to William Harvey’s 17th century plans of blood circulation which hang in the college library.

Lasdun was skilled in the use of concrete and used it many times in his architecture. This design won him the RIBA Bronze Medal in 1964 and the Civic Trust Award in 1967.

In April 1998 it was listed at Grade I because it is a powerful, elegant and rational statement of early 1960s architectural design.

Royal College of Physicians

Royal College of Physicians. © English Heritage

Royal National Theatre

Lasdun is perhaps best known for his work on the Royal National Theatre on Southbank between 1969 and 1976. He needed to accommodate three theatres, storage for scenery and props, space for workshops, foyers, restaurants and bars in his design. He did this using his trademark layers of reinforced concrete horizontals and flat roofs. The resulting building dominates the Southbank and is a visible landmark.

Like the Royal College of Physicians Lasdun drew on classical architecture to influence his design (although this time directly rather than via John Nash’s interpretation). The Olivier Theatre was designed using the Ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus as inspiration.

The theatre was listed in 1994 as a major public building of the post-war period by one of its leading architects, and reflecting new ideas in theatre design.

Royal National Theatre

        Royal National Theatre  © English Heritage

Norfolk Terrace, University of East Anglia

In the 1960s there was a desire to integrate different building uses into a single block. By 1964 Lasdun had already worked on buildings that attempted to serve many function including the Royal College of Physicians. His designs for the new University of East Anglia were to take this a step further. The intention was to provide accommodation for six thousand people together with a long spinal teaching block with walkways between so that everything would be together, connected, on one site. Everything would be accessible within a 5 minute walk.

The most striking part of the scheme was the accommodation in the form of ziggurats - drawing on Ancient Mesopotamian and Mayan architecture rather than Classical forms. Each floor is set slightly back from the one below – subtly reducing floor heights while creating a monumental composition of fascinating geometry and beauty in an open landscape. This style was to be repeated by Lansdun in the New Court building at Christ’s College Cambridge (1966) and the University of London (mid 1960s) although neither were situated in the same open landscape. Again Lasdun predominantly used concrete as his construction material of choice.

In 2003 Norfolk Terrace was listed at Grade II*.

Norfolk Terrace University of East Anglia

Norfolk Terrace, University of East Anglia © English Heritage


Whilst initial glances at their respective work would suggest little connection between Lasdun and Butterfield that is in fact not the case. Butterfield undertook numerous projects at Rugby School over a 26 year period. Lasdun was educated at Rugby and had the opportunity to see many of these buildings first hand. In fact Lasdun himself suggested during his 1977 Gold Medal Award speech that looking at ‘those stripey walls of stone and brick’ in Butterfield’s chapel probably prompted his early interest in architecture.

Butterfield may have been an early inspiration for Lasdun but the two men also shared a number of similarities. Both won the RIBA gold medal and lived to their mid-80s. Both were underappreciated in their own lifetime and even now their architecture provokes strong reaction. Their architectural styles are some of the most easily recognised. Whilst both have been labelled as working under specific architectural styles (Gothic and Brutalism respectively) it is felt that neither fit easily into these categories.


William Butterfield 1814-1900: Pioneer of High Victorian Gothic Architecture, 1982, published by Fischer Fine Art Limited, London

Learning to love Butterfield, article from The Victorian: magazine of the Victorian Society, Issue 46, July 2014, p5-6
Curtis, William, 1994, Denys Lasdun

Harwood, Elain, 2000, A guide to post-war Listed Buildings (England)

Keble College Architecture -

Sir Denys Lasdun Obituary -

RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner 1884, William Butterfield -

RIBA Gold Medal winner 1977, Sir Denys Lasdun -

Brutalist Architecture: Brutal or Beautiful (Pastscape article June 2014):