New Research Grant: Herbert Rowse

Herbert Rowse Research Project, funded by the RIBA.

Iain Jackson and Peter Richmond have been awarded a research grant from the RIBA to investigate the work of Herbert James Rowse (1887–1963). He was without doubt one of the most outstanding architects of his generation and through his work on a number of high-profile commissions he shaped the inter-war cityscape of Liverpool in a way that no other architect has done since. Whilst the trajectory of the evolution of his stylistic preferences can be clearly traced in the work he undertook in Liverpool, his output was not confined to the city and in the course of his career, he worked on major projects in Britain, Europe, Asia and North America. After local pupillage, in 1905 Rowse entered the school of architecture at Liverpool University, where Charles Reilly had just been appointed Roscoe professor.


Mersey Tunnel Ventilation Shaft, Liverpool, 1931-

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 returned to Liverpool, Rowse opened his own practice in 1914 and during the First World War he worked for the Admiralty designing ‘purely functional buildings’.


Woodside Tower for Mersey Tunnel, Birkenhead, 1931-

Following the War, he re-launched his practice with a commission for the Fairrie sugar refinery in Liverpool. Rowse’s competition-winning design for the Liverpool shipping office (the 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; these included Martins Bank (1927–32), Lloyds Bank (1928–32), and the Bibby Shipping Line offices (1930). The Lloyds Bank branch in Church Street was in Italian Romanesque, 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 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 Woodside tower on the Cheshire side of the Mersey won Rowse the 1937 RIBA bronze medal. His tunnel authority schemes 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.

The Philharmonic Concert Hall (1936–9), with its simplified brick massing and its restrained decoration, was much closer to mainstream European modernism, and is apparently inspired by W. M. Dudok. It was this approach which informed his designs for the British pavilion at the Empire Exhibition, Glasgow (1938), the Pharmaceutical Society headquarters in Brunswick Square, London (1937), 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 cottage housing scheme, in Wirral, upstaging his mentor 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. He also advised the Belgians on post-war reconstruction, and was awarded the Order of Leopold II in 1950. However, he took no further recorded 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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