Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Not just white boxes

As I've done in previous years, I'm turning English Buildings into a book blog for ten days or so, as I review a few books in the run-up to Christmas. As usual, I've selected a handful of volumes that I feel enthusiastic about, in the hope that some of my readers might find something to give, or receive. 

Twentieth Century Society, 100 Buildings 100 Years
Published by Batsford

You get the idea: a span of a century (1914–2013) and one building per year, each described briefly and illustrated with photographs. The book was put together by the Twentieth Century Society and the buildings were selected by its supporters. Quite a few of the structures it includes would not exist without the campaigning work of the Society; one or two have, alas, been demolished. Together they make up an arresting selection of what’s most interesting, and sometimes provocative, about 20th-century architecture in Britain.

The book is not, though, intended to showcase ‘the best’ or to be ‘a representative selection’ of 20th-century buildings. It reflects the individual tastes of the selectors, who are well informed about 20th-century architecture but have varied preferences. And this is a good thing, since the architecture of the last one hundred years is the most diverse Britain has produced. It embraces the white boxes of 1920s modernism, Art Deco in its various forms, mid-century modernism, brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech: all the usual suspects. But more than this, it acknowledges the impact of picturesque, garden-city inspired housing, of the serious Gothic of Bristol’s Wills memorial Building with its great tower, of the century’s neoclassical buildings, and of one-offs (or two-offs) like the vast airship hangars at Cardington or Ernest George Trobridge’s eccentric sort-of-Tudoresque houses in Kingsbury.

Representing all this variety is worthwhile because we get a bigger (if maybe more confusing) picture of modern architecture than the one revelled in many textbooks. And this is important for another reason. Many people and groups campaign for specific types or styles of building – modern movement buildings, say, or Art Deco cinemas. And that’s fine. But the Twentieth-Century Society takes on all of them, from the most modest Prefab to Battersea Power Station. We need this breadth of vision and approach.

Many readers will find favourites here. I was thrilled to find one of my own, Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion, on the cover, and a rhapsody (by Piers Gough) in praise of London’s Barbican housing inside. But like me I suspect most readers will also make interesting new architectural acquaintances. I was pleased to be introduced to UMIST’s Renold Building in Manchester and Benton Park School in Leeds, and to be reminded of Farnley Hey, Peter Womersley’s celebrated 1955 house in West Yorkshire. Clearly I should spend more time in the North of England.

An introduction and a series of essays (on Inter-war architecture by Gavin Stamp, on the Post-war period by Elain Harwood, and on Postmodernism by Timothy Brittain-Catlin) punctuate the text and add useful context. The book makes up a stimulating, breezy introduction to the variety of British architecture, with good photographs. A good start for anyone new to the subject, and a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf for anyone who thinks they know all about it: buy a copy for yourself and one for a friend: Christmas is coming.

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There’s an accompanying exhibition, too, at the Royal Academy.


Hels said...

I am often lecturing about the Bauhaus, mostly in Germany of course. But from 1933 on, it is interesting to see where Bauhaus staff, graduates and like-minded designers went, and what architecture (and other art forms) they created.

Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff were two Germans who went to Britain. And Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion and The Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead are two of my favourite places.

So I think your book MUST be great :)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, Hels, it's a good and worthwhile book. The dispersal of Bauhaus architects is fascinating phenomenon, affecting architecture in all kinds of places.

Both Bexhill and the Isokon Flats have been restored in recent years, so they are probably looking as good as they ever have.

Just in case anyone reads these comments without reading the review properly, I should mention that it's not 'my book' in the sense of 'written by me', but just in the sense that I've reviewed it!

bazza said...

Philip, there was an interesting radio play recently about how Erno Goldfinger built his brutalist houses in Willow Road, Hampstead. I can see the parallel with what Hels has said although Goldfinger came from Hungary, not Germany.
(Incidentally, there is a brilliant last line in the play where Goldfinger is introduced to a new neighbour and asks his name: "Fleming, Ian Fleming". True apparently!)
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’