The Context


In many ways, and for many reasons, the Arts and Crafts movement has been a very curious, and ongoing, constituent of twenty-first century culture.  It is important to recognise that it is a philosophy, not a style, hence the usual term of it being a ‘movement’.  One might be criticised for calling an Arts & Crafts house neo-Tudor or Italianate or mission-style or medieval, for example, yet this complexity of description is not inappropriate.  The Arts & Crafts movement found itself architecturally manifested in many different ‘styles’, often in different places, or as in St.Catharines, in various forms in one locality. 

The roots of the Arts and Crafts are in Europe in the early-1800s, at a time when the worst features of early industrialisation and rapid urbanisation were being manifested.  Housing was poor and in limited supply, urban infrastructure was deficient, education the preserve of the affluent, and density-related disease rampant.  Many people, including Charles Dickens, were railing against such problems, and governments were starting to move in the direction of remedying the situation through public health acts to improve the nature of cities and housing. 

In contrast, this is also the time of the appearance of mass-produced goods available at modest prices to more people, which also helped improve matters.  'Things' were becoming cheaper with mass production.  It is the display of goods at the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park[1], which is often seen to be the immediate stimulus for the Arts & Crafts movement.  This event was to display the new products that were being produced - including new technologies.  The philosophers of day, most notably William Morris (1843-1896) were most concerned about the use of technology to create cheap and shoddy goods displayed, and sought alternatives. 

That the movement emerged suggests that a broad swathe of the population was ready for new approaches. 

Morris, in furnishing his “Red House”, probably the first architectural expression of the Arts & Crafts, found virtually nothing then commercially available to be acceptable.  The Arts and Crafts philosophy suggested that the way ahead was through more carefully considered and crafted goods - not in large-scale mass-production.  Ironically, the lowered prices of goods resulting from mass-production was a main factor behind the increase in the standard of living of the English population of the time - including the mechanisation of the production of building materials, such as brick, glass, millwork and roofing. 

Perhaps not fully recognised at the time, two inventions which were propelling architecture not just to mass-production, but to a global uniformity were Portland Cement (1824), and the rolled steel joist[2].  So, as well as an explicit reaction to mass-production, the focus on traditional methods and materials almost inevitably led to a reflection of historical regional styles. 

Architecturally, the A&C philosophers reacted against the use of applied styles - this being the period of often riotous Victorian revivals - and sought out a purer, more honest expression of local culture, materials and methods.  While this, in an English context often led to buildings with a distinct medieval appearance, this was different than high-style Victorian design.  A&C medieval-appearing buildings were that way, not because they were consciously implemented in that ‘style’, but because they were using the same materials, and often the same methods, as were prevalent in the middle ages - building technologies traditionally changed very slowly. 

Accordingly, the Arts & Crafts movement embeds, from its very roots, a large set of contradictions and internal conflicts, which led to some of its inherent flexibility as a philosophy, and the wealth of design it stimulated.  It is readily argued that it is inappropriate to use the term “Arts and Crafts” in reference to a any specific “style”.  Although A&C is a philosophy, not a style at all, individual design responses can be described in terms of style.  Hence, books on the Arts & Crafts can, and do, reference Wright's Prairie houses, the American shingle and craftsman styles, the romantic Finnish revivalism of Saarinen, and even the German Bauhaus works of Walter Gropius, as being part of the movement.  Elements of the inheritance survive in much design philosophy today - the preference for natural materials, that materials are not to imitate other materials, and that function is recognised and apparent.  Somehow the term 'honesty' inevitably creeps in - that one material is not used to imitate another. 

As a philosophy with it roots at least partially based on the work of artisans working in traditional ways and with traditional materials (no matter how much this was corrupted in practice), it had a natural conflict with the traditional architectural establishments, and not just in terms of 'style', but with respect to the structure of the industry.  In Canada, Brown (2003, p.8) notes that Eden Smith "and his circle" of Arts & Crafts individualistic believers were opposed to the Ontario Association of Architects, and its ongoing policy of encouraging degrees and certifications. 

In keeping with the ambiguity and complexity of the Arts & Crafts, it is even difficult to determine when it ended - or if it did.  It is often said that it ended in England at or before the outbreak of the First War, and disappeared in Canada in the 1920s, however its influence continued and continues:  certainly Macbeth was building in the philosophy into the 1940s, and even today such publications as the American magazine “Fine Homebuilding” is consistent with many of the approaches and beliefs of the original 19th century Arts and Crafts philosophers. 

Hence the quandary.  If Arts and Crafts is a philosophy which generates design, it makes little sense to term a building style as “Arts & Crafts”, no more than one might suggest that a house is “liberal” or “Aristotelian” - not that one cannot use these terms, but it would be most unexpected and confusing.  How should one describe the “style” of the “domestic gems” of Nicholson and Macbeth, in such a way that people can understand?  Toronto architectural historian Don Brown termed one of the most notable examples of Eden Smith as “English vernacular romantic” commenting that architectural history is not an exact science.  Perhaps each of Nicholson and Macbeth’s houses might warrant a specific descriptive term.