History, Liverpool Interest

Herbert Rowse: the architect who shaped the city of Liverpool

Liverpool University Press has recently partnered with Historic England, and one of the first books we will be publishing as part of this is Herbert Rowse by Iain Jackson, Simon Pepper, and Peter Richmond. This book is an exploration of the life and work of Liverpool based architect Herbert Rowse, and aims to discern not only the architectural merits and advances of his work, but also their wider significance. Keep reading to find out more about Herbert Rowse and his work in Liverpool.

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In this pioneering study, the largely forgotten individual behind buildings of the Art Deco era known to millions of Liverpool’s citizens and visitors is brought to life. Herbert James Rowse (1887-1963) was an extraordinary architect who shaped the city of Liverpool like no other.  He produced an array of exquisite buildings, with plans and infrastructure of utmost quality.  Practicing in an eclectic manner that was influenced by American Beaux Arts and later using simpler geometries of monumental bare brickwork, Rowse’s work has endured passing trends and fashions, retaining a seductive appeal and resonance with visitors and occupants alike despite its often monumental massing and extraordinary scale.

Through Rowse’s work we gain a glimpse into some of the broader agendas of the time and place.  This is well seen in the corporate and banking commissions that accompanied the large docks and shipping firms in Liverpool, where Rowse produced some of his most distinctive work.  In addition to these commercial ventures Rowse contributed to the post-war housing debates through his proposals that looked to rows of cottages set around village greens, rather than high-rise living.

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Woodchurch estate housing. Iain Jackson.

After local pupillage, Rowse entered the Liverpool School of Architecture in 1905, where recently appointed Professor Charles Reilly was embarking on turning the school into what would become one, if not the most famous British school of architecture. Gaining a first-class certificate in 1907, Rowse was also the joint winner of the Holt travelling scholarship, which took him to Italy and started a lifelong interest in Italian Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. A set of measured drawings arising out of his Italian studies won him an honourable mention in the silver medal competition of the RIBA in 1910. In the same year he became an associate of the RIBA whilst employed as an assistant to Frank Simon, who in 1912 had won the competition for the Manitoba parliament building. Rowse worked in Simon’s Winnipeg office in 1913. He also travelled extensively throughout North America and worked briefly in Chicago and New York. On his return to Liverpool, Rowse opened his own practice in 1914 and during the First World War he worked for the Admiralty designing ‘purely functional buildings’ before receiving commissions for two sugar refineries in Liverpool. Rowse’s competition-winning design for India Buildings in 1924 was the first among a series of large-scale commercial commissions in the city, often carried out in partnership with other individuals or firms including the exquisite Martins Bank (1927–32) with its daring cantilevered steel frame, clad with an ensemble of rich materials and historical references.

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View of Liverpool. Barclays Group Archive.

The Lloyds Bank (1928-32) in Church Street adopted an Italian Romanesque stance, while for bigger buildings Rowse used a rich, eclectic classicism, often with a distinct American Beaux-Arts flavour – a style that was simultaneously being promoted by Reilly at the Liverpool School. In 1931 he was appointed consultant to the Mersey tunnel authority, and designed the tunnel approaches, arched entrances, and six substantial ventilation towers. The largest tower housed the tunnel authority offices, and was a distinguished addition to the group of tall buildings at Liverpool’s pierhead; whilst the brick monochrome Woodside tower in Birkenhead won Rowse the 1937 RIBA bronze medal. His tunnel projects featured low-relief sculpture and art deco work, leaning towards the stripped classical style favoured by both European totalitarian regimes and American New Deal designers. At this time Rowse was working closely with Tyson Smith, Liverpool’s leading modern sculptor.

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Georges Dock Ventilation Tower. Architects Journal.

The Philharmonic Concert Hall (1936–9), with its simplified brick massing and its restrained decoration, was much closer to mainstream European modernism (inspired somewhat by Willem Dudok), whilst the interior was carefully calibrated to deliver exceptional acoustic performance. Again, working with leading sculptors and artisans, the rich interior features glazed etchings by Reginald Hector Whistler and Edmund Thompson. It was this homage to brick that informed his designs for the British pavilion at the Empire Exhibition, Glasgow (1938) and the Pilkington Glass Company offices in St Helens, Lancashire (1938–9) all of which displayed similar Dudokian influences combined with American Streamline Moderne styling.  War again frustrated Rowse’s professional career just when he was beginning to win substantial commissions outside Liverpool. In 1947 he completed the Pharmaceutical Society building (now London University’s pharmacy school) and secured the Woodchurch housing scheme, in Wirral, upstaging his mentor Professor Sir Charles Reilly with a scheme ‘traditionally English in character … modified to suit contemporary limitations and resources’. Woodchurch was one of the biggest regional projects in the era of post-war austerity, and won Rowse a bronze medal for housing from the Ministry of Health. However, the architect resigned before completion, following a dispute with the client. Rowse designed diplomatic buildings at Delhi and Karachi in 1951 and also advised the Belgians on post-war reconstruction, however, he took no further part in British practice until he won the competition for the renovation of the ‘Rows’ in Chester (with Thomas Harker) just before his death in 1963.

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In all of Rowse’s work there was a commitment to technological innovation, careful composition and an insistence on quality. It was these three elements, coupled with a desire to collaborate with artists, to create lavish interiors and never overlook the civic duty of architecture, that had fundamentally steered Rowse’s approach. And it was this final ambition, the civic duty, that really shines through in Rowse’s home city of Liverpool, a city that is surely indebted to his architecture, sculpture and landscaping.

For more information on Herbert Rowse, please visit our website.

 

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