The Twentieth Century Society

Reviews: Books round-up June 2015

Catherine Croft

The Planner Tom Campbell (Bloomsbury Circus, 304pp, £12.99)

In this novel we first meet the misogynistic and insecure James at an ‘understated and classy’ Farringdon restaurant (round the corner from C20, then – how come I’ve not been?). A planner for Southwark Council, he’s neither as posh nor as rich as he’d like to be. Once, he thought that having ‘masterplans to produce, jobs to create, leisure centres to build, homes to knock down, communities to displace’ gave his life meaning, but he’s led astray by the ghastly Felix, who works in advertising. It’s not the repeated calling in sick that does for him, or his poor performance at meetings, but the fact that he thinks he can hold his own with a smarmy developer. I’m not sure Campbell has his satire fully under control, but I loved it – especially the fact that the Council is housed in a building ‘so stupendously foul [it] had been nominated for a prestigious architectural award in 1967’. Useful advice too from James, that literature and theatre are reasonable hobbies, but ‘crafts, contemporary dance, heritage – those were clearly dead ends…’ Perfect holiday reading for planners with a job to go back to.

Nimrod: a Cavalry Black: from Foal to Retirement Juliet Blaxland (J A Allen & Co, 32pp, £7.99)

Blaxland used to do the Living in a Modern House cartoon-photomontages in the much missed Perspectives Magazine (there’s one on the back of our Modern House Revisited Journal – they’re really good). Now she’s married to a Lt Colonel in the Household Cavalry and has written and illustrated this life story of a horse at Sir Basil Spence’s Hyde Park Barracks (a current C20 case). There’s a nice cross-section of the multi-storey stables (with obviously happy horses) and she doesn’t debunk the story that the muck goes straight to the Buckingham Palace rose garden on a secret conveyor belt.

The Story of Buildings, from the Pyramids to the Sydney Opera House and Beyond Patrick Dillon (Walker Books, 96pp, £16.99)

You could try and foster an interest in architecture in any children you know with this guide, packed with exploded axonometrics, views and diagrams. Modern buildings get about a quarter of the space in a world history which starts with an Egyptian pyramid. It also includes the Bauhaus and the Chrysler building, and finishes with Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till’s Straw Bale House in Islington. The excellent text is by conservation architect Paddy Dillon, who has just completed work on the National Theatre.

Celebrating 50 years of the Bodleian Law Library, 1964-2014 Edited by Ruth Bird (Free download from

The Bodleian Law Library is the largest of three libraries built in Oxford by Sir Leslie Martin in 1960-64, and featured in our Journal Oxford and Cambridge (2014). Here are accounts of the library’s commissioning and building, as well as a section on its architecture. After Erwin N Griswold of the Harvard Law School encouraged initial applications for outside funding, the popular fellow Peter Carter led an attack to get Peter Shepheard’s scheme rejected and Martin brought in. The book testifies to the Library’s success as a place to work, the convenience of its planning and its light, airy spaces; it was described as the most advanced in the world at the time. The department is to be congratulated for producing this tribute. Elain Harwood

Homes for Welsh Workers: from Robert Owen to the Garden City Movement Stephen Kay (325 Press, Abergavenny, 130pp, £10)

This survey is a labour of love – Kay did much of his research by public transport or bicycle. Over-ambitiously large estates often stalled with just a fraction of the houses completed, and are now sometimes buried deep within later estates. Many of the buildings in the extensive gazetteer are post-1914, and some are beautifully described. With brief biographies of architects and housing reformers, this is well worth tracking down.

Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics Beatriz Preciado (Zone Books/MIT Press, £20.95)

I was hoping for full-colour 70s excess here, but this is an academic text (albeit inspired by a TV encounter with ‘Hefner in pyjamas quoting Virginia Woolf’). The author is a transgender and queer activist who, with a blend of witty simile and heavy-handed theory, argues that ‘Playboy is for the contemporary critical thinker what the steam engine and the textile factory were for Karl Marx… [it] provides a discursive laboratory to interrogate the production of hegemonic heterosexual masculinity within capitalism.’ There was almost as much architecture as bunny in Playboy, and I now long to visit the archive. A fully illustrated version would be good, but Playboy apparently refused to come up with the pictures.