The Twentieth Century Society

Reviews: Books round-up October 2015

Catherine Croft

Wall Remnants – Wall Traces Axel Klausmeier and Leo Schmidt (Westkreuz (2004), 288pp, about £13)

I recently came across this pocket guidebook to what physically remains of the Berlin Wall (and the structures related to it), complete with maps, photographs and advice on how to get to each fragment by public transport. There’s a brief introduction on the wall’s history, from the barbed wire erected on 13 August 1961, through later reinforcement with concrete housing panels, to the final, fourth-generation ‘Border Wall 75’ using prefabricated concrete elements intended for agricultural purposes. It also reflects on the wall’s cultural significance, and makes a compelling case that these physical remnants are important as ‘enduring witnesses’. After the initial urge to erase this chapter of history, they are now being designated as monuments, and permission to demolish is refused. The maps identify ‘expressive traces’, a term I particularly liked.

Concrete Reality: Denys Lasdun and the National Theatre Patrick Dillon (National Theatre publishing, 92pp, £20)

This is a large-format paperback, like a theatre programme on steroids, with lots of archive material about the construction process, smart text and more appealing shots of concrete surfaces than I’ve seen anywhere. It’s the rather gorgeous by-product of the nearly six years he spent ‘living and breathing Denys Lasdun’s building’. It does a great job of making sense of a building often seen as complex, difficult and hard to love. The perfect Christmas present for anyone who enjoys going to the National but grumbles about the architecture; it should convert even the most hardened anti-brutalist.

Jane Brocket’s Grand Provincial Tour: Preston with Blackburn, Southport, Morecombe and Carnforth (Yarnstorm Press, 112pp, £7.99)

This neat little guide promises ‘all you need to know to have a rewarding day of culture and civilised pleasures in Preston and surrounding towns’. Brocket cites the Bus Station we have campaigned so hard for as one of the top two reasons to visit (the spectacular Harris Art Gallery is the other). I’m sad to see her worry that listing ‘can be a double-edged sword’, and dispute the suggestion that listing is going to prevent imaginative new uses for the Bus Station; but encouraging visitors is great. As well as buildings, she recommends cafes, parks and bookshops, gives a recipe for parching peas, and explains the difference between Eccles cakes, flat cakes and Chorley cakes.

The Barbican: Architecture and Light Alan Ainsworth (Oblique Publishing, 100pp, £15)

Alan is an architectural photographer based in the same building as C20, and he launched this book with events including a special evening for members. His black and white images emphasise the estate’s strong geometry, the texture of its concrete – he likens concrete surfaces to skin tones – and the dramatic shadows cast by one block upon another. He also explores architects Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s interest in photography, while Alec Forshaw gives a history of the estate’s planning, and there is a conversation between me, C20 event organiser and City expert Chris Rogers, resident Jane Northcote, and Johanna Gibbons, the landscape designer who has been working at the Barbican.

Style Council: Inspirational Interiors in ex-Council Homes Sarah Thompson (Square Peg, 144pp, £20)

I’m too closely involved to review this book, but wanted to draw it to your attention (you can see some of the photos by Sarah Cuttle in the Me and My House feature in the print issue of the magazine). It makes the important point that the quality of much council housing was fantastic, even if maintenance sometimes left much to be desired. Sarah Thompson came to see me when she was looking for examples, and I was talked into being included (along with some much more distinguished ex-council homes such as flats at Keeling House and Park Hill). It’s inspired me to tidy up more often, and left me less in awe of immaculate magazine shoots.

Manser Houses Peter Murray (Clip-Kit Ltd, 104pp, £25)

We hope to feature one of Michael Manser’s elegant modernist houses in Me and My House, prompted by the publication of this beautifully produced guide to the firm’s residential projects from 1960 to 2014. As well as excellent contemporary photos, each house has a site plan and a full set of floor plans, and the text describes how many of the commissions came about. I love the illustration of Michael’s own house on the front of Home magazine in 1962 – he was so determined to have daffodils in the foreground that, when completion overran, he planted plastic ones for the informal photoshoot, which also features his family enjoying their home.