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The Red House

Bexley Heath, England

Designed for William Morris in 1859 by his friend and coworker Philip Webb, the Red House in the London suburb of Bexley Heath has been called “a cornerstone in the history of English domestic architecture.” Much more than that, although in one sense a piece of eclectic architecture, it was a milestone in the way that architects designed houses, making the house to fit the occupant, rather than (as had been the case) forcing the occupants to fit the house: the earliest glimpse of functionally constrained design. Early in the twentieth century the German critic Hermann Muthesius recognized it as “the first house to be conceived as a whole inside and out, the very first example in the history of the modern house.” At that moment, the ideas behind it were taken up and developed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and fed back into the European Modern Movement.

The now-famous English social reformer, designer, novelist, and poet William Morris (1834–1896) originally intended to become a Church of England priest. While at university he decided to devote himself to art. He then worked briefly for the Gothic Revival architect G. E. Street, but influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, soon turned, also briefly, to painting. In 1857 he met Jane Burden, one of Rossetti’s models, and two years later they were married in Oxford. Morris was financially independent—his annual income of £900 was substantial—and in summer 1858, while on a rowing holiday in France, he decided to build a house at Upton in Kent, southeast of London. He commissioned the architect Philip Webb (1831–1915), with whom he had worked in Street’s office, to design a house “very medieval in spirit” and “in the style of the thirteenth century.” Webb resigned his position and commenced work on his first building as an independent architect.

Named for its brick walls and clay tile roofs, the Red House was indeed medieval in spirit. It rejected the formal aspects of the fashionable Gothic and the exotic Italianate for the familiar vernacular—“homegrown” English domestic architecture, emphasizing the spirit, not the letter, of a medieval past that Morris and his friends viewed with wistful longing. The house was simple and (remarkably for its day) free from architectural ornament. One writer has commented, “Form was more important than decoration. Outside it [had] steeply tiled roofs, long ridge-lines, tall chimney-stacks and steeply recessed porches. Inside it had plain tiled floors, a simple open staircase and large wooden dressers” (Bradley 1978, 26). The house was begun in 1859 and completed within a year.

Rossetti thought it “more of a poem than a house … but an admirable place to live in too.” That livability