Drawing on the collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Empire Builders: British Architects Abroad 1750 – 1950 is a display at the V&A + RIBA Architecture Gallery in London showcasing the variety of international buildings designed and built by British architects over two centuries.
From a 19th Century cast iron market in Chile to an art deco church in Delhi; from palaces in the Crimea to Parliament House in Melbourne, the display examines through drawings, watercolours, photographs and models, where, why and how UK architects built abroad, both inside and outside the British Empire.
A variety of designs for private homes around the world are shown through watercolours and photographs.
Some, such as the drawings by Sir Ernest George for a bungalow in Nairobi show how architects had come to understand and respect local materials and business practices, whilst other homes look as though they should be in the English countryside.
These include an incongruous Arts and Crafts house by Charles Voysey built for an English doctor in the heart of the Egyptian desert in 1905 and a drawing by Edwin Lutyens for a home on the Hudson River for an American railway magnate. In a letter to his wife he explained “I am making sketches for a house – money no object!! Whether I get it or not is another matter – all America is after the job”.
Architects found that commissions were plentiful within the British Empire from government, expatriates and anglophiles.
From the 1840s onwards they also participated in competitions both inside and outside the Empire and after the founding of the RIBA in 1834 many architects working abroad sent back drawings and photographs of their work for its collections. The disparate nature of working and living abroad meant that membership of the RIBA was prized as an important demonstration of their standing and abilities.