The Twentieth Century Society

Reviews: Books round-up March 2014

Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design by Gavin Stamp (Aurum,  272pp, £16.99)

This is a compilation of Gavin’s articles for the international art magazine Apollo (which he describes as ‘an admirable and precious publication’).  They cover a wide range of mainly architectural topics, and although his interests extend well beyond the 20th century, these include many buildings which have been key cases for us over the last ten years. So, ‘Keeping an Open Mind’ covers both the Commonwealth Institute’s bid to have their building delisted by private member’s bill and the Grimshaw extension proposals for Jim Cadbury-Brown’s Royal College of Art.

He is honest about how his views have changed, acknowledging ‘prejudices against the modern (to which I once adhered)’, and recalling how  ‘as chairman of the Twentieth Century Society [he stepped down in 2007] I found myself defending buildings which I detested (and didn’t really see) when… enthralled by my first love, the 19th century.’  John Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster cartoons, Edward James’s surreal interiors at Monkton and the Anti-Ugly movement are all included.  The short essay format is both readable and entertaining and I like the follow-up comments at the end of each, reflecting on whether things have developed as he anticipated.

Where are we now?  Gavin worries about the likely impact of funding cuts at English Heritage, and concludes that ‘Modernism, once shoddy but altruistic, has morphed into the vulgar style of arrogant capitalism.’ Despite the self-reflection quoted above, he hasn’t totally mellowed.

Ercol: Furniture in the Making by Lesley Jackson (Richard Dennis, 200pp, £25)

Billed as ‘the book that post-war design enthusiasts have been waiting for’, this book probably marks the end of Ercol bargains on eBay.  Italian-born Lucian Ercolani founded his furniture company in High Wycombe in 1920, but it is the Windsor range, made from 1945 onwards, that is best known. Based on the traditional chair form, it was exhibited at both the Britain Can Make It exhibition of 1946 and the Festival of Britain.  The range expanded hugely in the 1950s, and was not successfully copied until the 1960s (they may have looked simple, but were highly engineered).   Jackson notes that Ercolani’s achievement was to devise a way of mass-producing the Windsor chair industrially, while preserving the essence of the craft-based archetype.

This thoroughly researched book covers manufacturing techniques and marketing strategies, and includes wonderful period images of furniture, factory interiors and ephemera.  Appendices include design notebooks, labels, marks, and a detailed list of all the Windsor designs from 1945-69.

The Birth of Rome: Five Visions for the Eternal City by Silvia Barisione (Wolfsonian/FIU, 89pp, $19.95)

The founder of the Wolfsonian, Miami Beach, the American collector Mitchell Wolfson Jr,  owned the extraordinary Castello Mackenzie (1893-1905), visited on the Society’s Genoa trip in 2004. It was his passion for Italy, for ‘propaganda arts’ and for artefacts relating to international exhibitions that made possible the exhibition (which will still be running when C20 visits Miami next month) on which this book is based. It is the first in a new series of paperbacks, each with a short essay followed by colour plates.

Curator Barisione uses five projects to illustrate how important both the idea and the physical remains of Ancient Rome were to Mussolini in the inter-war period.  She points out that ‘The Rome of the Grand Tour – picturesque, colourful, chaotic, its abandoned ruins casually coexisting with vernacular architecture – was completely denied by the regime.’  She shows how even the foremost architect of the fascist period, Marcello Piacentini,  who was not initially a supporter of the strategy of ‘disembowelment and isolation’ of monuments, fell into line with Mussolini’s personal idea of what constituted imperial grandeur: palimpsests and patina were not in favour, big statements certainly were.

The ‘visions’ selected are a mix of built projects (the Foro Mussolini, EUR, and the redevelopment of the area around the mausoleum of Emperor Augustus) alongside Virgilio Marchi’s unrealised Futurist projects and the Italian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The history of the mausoleum is especially fascinating.  Before Mussolini intervened, it had a 1908 symphony hall on top of it.  This was demolished, and Ara Pacis, the Altar of Augustinian Peace, installed next to it, in a glass structure by Vittorio Ballio. Morpurgo.   This had been reconstructed from recently excavated remnants, reunited with fragments from the Louvre and Italian museums.  Mussolini saw himself as a new Augustus, and included the complex in Hitler’s tour of Rome in 1938.   When Richard Meier’s replacement museum opened on the site in 2006, his unpicking was seen as rescuing the site from its Fascist associations. This is a lot to fit into a small book, and the architectural models and cartoons for mosaics have less impact here than in the gallery.

Also on show at the Wolfsonian is Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design.   This exhibition gathers together furniture, ceramics, glass and graphic and product design that embodied the regime’s idea of Italianità (Italianness), something which could both glorify the Roman Empire and capture the spirit of modernity.

 Archi-Doodle:  An Architect’s Activity Book by Steve Bowkett (Lawrence King, 160pp, £12.95)

Written, or rather drawn, by architect Steve Bowkett (whose house by Peter Aldington featured in our last issue), this imaginative book encourages ‘architects of all ages’ to experiment with  architectural drawing.  ‘My favourite page to do was the one with the half-completed Eiffel Tower, where you had to copy the left-hand side to make a complete drawing. I recommend this book to anyone from age 8 upwards’, says Tilda Croft (age 9). You’re also asked to design a different roof for the Sydney Opera House, a façade inspired by Gaudi’s Casa Batllo and a corner building prompted by a Rob Krier comparative study.