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Although it was the relatively systematic quality of this kind of training in comparison with what had gone before which had secured recognition for formal education from the architectural profession, it was not the quality which Holford or his contemporaries were later to remember as the distinguishing characteristic of the Liverpool School.

As they were too young to remember the old dispensation, the new had no significance for them. Rather, they were to recall long hours spent mastering the classical orders and other elements of the basic stylistic vocabulary, and more significantly, the inspirational qualities of the place.

Holford | A study in architecture, planning and civic design | Taylor & Francis Group

In the hands of an enthusiast like Reilly, the Beaux Arts method cultivated something more than mere competence in the student. The tradition embodied a philosophy of design which, upon the basis of ideas about proportionality in geometrical relationships, aspired to an ideal beauty. Both irregularities of site and problems of cost which restrict buildings in real life were to be ignored. Beginners learned by attempting, and persisting in, such exercises of progressive difficulty. He took up the Beaux Arts practice of setting subjects in which the students were given a limited time, usually six hours, in which to produce sketch designs.

These were then used in a procedure which gave him full scope to play the role of the patron in his atelier and which he described in his autobiography. Every Tuesday morning the sketch designs of the previous Monday from each year were hung up and, after a jury of teachers, including myself, had assessed them, I generally gave the criticism. Indeed, I made a point of giving it to the early years. They are the important ones on which to make an impression.

It is with them that the imagination most easily catches fire. The designs themselves must, of course, be of an imaginative kind. The hard geometrical work, architecture in the solid, goes on all the week. Mondays were for architecture in the clouds. I believe that is laughed at today, but it produced results.

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Palaces for Kubla Khan are in my opinion a necessary part of architectural education. Because the classicism of the Liverpool School has been so often emphasized, it is worth stressing the freedom of the atmosphere in which the young Holford moved. Certainly, Reilly had since his student days been an admirer of classical architecture.


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The School was closely identified with the revival of classicism which occurred before the Great War. By the mids the work which was being produced in Liverpool was increasingly eclectic. It is also worth noting that there was little inducement offered to Holford or his Liverpool contemporaries to adopt any programmatic conception of architecture.

The new architectural movements which were developing in Europe, and which were soon to be so influential in Britain, were characterized by propagandist fervour, collectivist sympathies, a prediliction for manifestoes and a seeking after social and ethical rectitude which was at the same time stylistic and an ostensible rejection of style.

In many respects a Liverpool training represented the antithesis of these new movements of which more later ; it was a self-conscious training in styles, and a cultivation of individuality. He was for the first time freed from the constraints of home and school, and from the small world of English-speaking South Africa.

He was freed, too, from the drudgery of learning that which he had no desire to know.

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The inherent method of architectural training and the abundance of models inviting his emulation gave direction to his energies, and for the first time he began to emerge as a singular talent. His ability as a schoolboy artist had been obvious but by no means exceptional, but he now emerged as a very accomplished draughtsman. He prospered academically also, but the quality in which he stood out, in a year of able students, was that of personality.

He seldom if ever made mistakes, either socially or at work, but seemed always to be in control of himself, his subject material and the situation. He was also cultured, literate and sociable, spreading his friendships fairly widely. He was in short a very adult young man who, to all outward appearances, had nothing to fear from the characteristic crises of his age-group. Liverpool 13 A sketch of part of the Diocesan College, drawn by Holford in The move to Liverpool resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quality of his draughtsmanship.

In Liverpool, however, the mood of postwar frivolity had not yet dispersed, and students in general were little inclined to be serious. Although the University was not officially closed during the strike, public transport was paralysed and many students and staff could not travel in to work.

Many more joined the various voluntary organizations which were set up to provide essential services and to keep goods moving. In later life Holford told of how he was recruited by the father of a fellow Holford a study in architecture, planning and civic design 14 student to serve as a locomotive fireman at the Edge Hill marshalling yards.

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Quite how this episode ended is unclear: there are several versions, one of which concludes with the train breaking down and the amateur crew returning in ignominy by another train. Another ends with his being talked out of further blacklegging by a fellow student. His letters spoke of a hectic social life, of new friends, meetings with relations, financial problems and the theatre. He had two groups of friends in Devon who provided him with a holiday base in England where he could walk, sketch, shoot rabbits and relax.

He made several walking tours in England and visited numerous country houses. Though not affluent, he was sufficiently well-off to visit Switzerland, Italy and France in the vacations. It was the theatre, however, which most dominated his free time. This dramatic activity consolidated a life-long love of the theatre, and heightened the ability which Holford had shown as a schoolboy actor. As we shall see later, it was a talent which was to spill over into his professional life, benefiting his career enormously but sometimes prompting mixed feelings in those around him.

At the beginning of Hubert Kidd came to England, and paid a visit to Liverpool during which he invited Holford to join him on a short Italian tour. In any event, his letters did not suggest any of the love which he was later to feel for Italy. It was in many respects a false start.

Holford returned to England just before Easter. A few days after the beginning of the new term, Reilly received a cable from Johannesburg. Reilly broke the news to Holford in his room at the School of Architecture, but could tell him nothing of the circumstances surrounding it.


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Holford was entirely unprepared for this blow, and there were at least two agonizing weeks to wait before any more detailed news could reach England. The news, when it came, could not have been worse. It would have been natural for William to entertain the thought of giving up his own studies and returning to South Africa.

In Johannesburg, however, friends were mustering help for the family, with offers of accommodation and financial aid. It soon became clear that it would be possible for Neil to raise enough money to study at the Royal School of Mines in London, and William was able to continue his course at Liverpool.

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William Holford, Baron Holford

He had been a dutiful son brought up in a close-knit family, and though much else had changed in his first two years at Liverpool, his relationship with his parents had remained frozen in time, Liverpool 15 fixed at the date when he had sailed for England. It knocked away the main prop upon which his life had so far rested, and marked the transition to emotional selfsufficiency. Already a controlled young man, his natural charm disguised a reserve that was henceforth all but impenetrable. His inscrutability could be unsettling; one very distinguished architect would later remember Holford in his thirties as enormously amusing, but with a cleverness and a coolness which made others keep their emotional distance.

It is easily possible to make overmuch of such a deduction, but it must certainly be allowed that throughout his life he took the opportunities that his talents opened up to him, rather than setting a course and creating opportunities for himself. Without discipline and a personal sense of values, his was a career which could easily have lapsed into dilettanteism. Perhaps his father and his education together secured him against this, but his career up to the time he came to Liverpool was chequered enough to leave a faint suggestion of doubt.

Any such doubt was banished by the events of His fundamental seriousness was two-fold. His talents were to be directed towards ends in the worth of which he sincerely believed, and used for the benefit of others. But they were also to be directed towards the achievement of worldly success. He would almost always be able to pass off serious things with a joke and to preserve his sense of fun, and he was not conventionally or obviously ambitious. Yet no-one who drove themselves as hard as he did could have been other than in deadly earnest. On his return to Liverpool he was still mourning his father deeply, but this withdrawal from the world did not last very long.

Within a matter of months he was again participating energetically in student theatre and journalism. His recovery was much hastened by the benign influence of two people who, in different ways, were to be the most intimate friends he would ever have. The first such friendship was that of the older man, the patron and mentor. Yet Holford often sought out in others those very qualities which he lacked himself.

For his part, Reilly had already marked Holford out as a student of considerable promise and a kindred spirit in his vitality and in his artistic enthusiasms. Always inclined to a familial view of the School in general, the particular circumstances led him to take a paternal interest in Holford in particular. Holford a study in architecture, planning and civic design 16 Holford later wrote that as the new continental influences in architecture made themselves felt, he and his contemporaries became disillusioned with Reilly and his system of education.

While his contemporaries were to undertake pilgrimages to the studios of Le Corbusier or Gropius, Holford never looked up to anyone as a teacher again. The second of these special friendships was that between himself and Gordon Stephenson. In the event, northern France proved to be nearer and cheaper, but thereafter each recognized in the other that particular closeness which is among the most exclusive of human relationships. Over the next ten years they were to be travelling companions, academic rivals and colleagues, and professional partners.

He had worked his way up through a succession of local schools finishing with the Liverpool Institute, which had produced Maxwell Fry before him. He was taller than Liverpool 17 Gordon Stephenson. Holford, spoke with a rather gruff voice, and had a temperament which, while sensitive enough, was markedly more direct and forceful. He was broadminded and with views increasingly tending towards the left.