The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Books roundup February 2013

All reviewed by Catherine Croft

Corbusier Comes to Cambridge:  Post-war Architecture and the Competition to Build Churchill College by Mark Goldie (Churchill College, 74pp, £12.50 including p&p)

C20 members will be familiar with how Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners were selected to build Churchill College from Elain Harwood’s essay in our Journal C20 Architecture and its Histories.  Here, Mark Goldie expands on the story (in which practically all the key British firms of the post-war period were involved), and presents many more images from the college archive. Goldie notes that the college is included in Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards book, and assumes that his reader is not necessarily a fan.   He himself specialises in British history from 1660-1750, and it’s great to have an ‘outsider’ who sees the ‘need to rediscover why Pevsner called Churchill “the best of the new” and to access how daring a departure it was.’   He concludes by endorsing Elain’s judgement that the College is ‘conservatively majestic’.     This is a book which should convince anyone visiting Cambridge to put Churchill on their itinerary.

To buy, visit www.chu.cam.ac.uk and select merchandise.

Egypt in England by Chris Elliott (English Heritage, 320pp, £25)

This is the book of the recent exhibition in EH’s new gallery in the top of Admiralty Arch (worth a visit just for the view).   It covers Egyptian style buildings and interiors from the C19 on, and combines essays on specific topics (the one on cinemas has the most C20 content) with a gazetteer of examples from around the country (though London gets a massive share).   The illustrations go well beyond the best-known (it includes John Outram’s extraordinary Sphinx Hill (1998) which C20 visited when new, and must now be a potential listing candidate).  Highly recommended.

The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture by Tanya Harrod (Yale University Press, 380pp, £30)

This is an engrossing account of the life of an extraordinary man. British studio potter Michael Cardew (1901-83) trained with the legendary Bernard Leach before attempting to establish a local tradition of stoneware in West Africa.  It’s good on his pots, his idealism, his unusual private life and his passion to put his ideas into action.   Harrod never ceases to be impressed by Cardew’s drive and belief, and has produced a critical yet compassionate portrait.

A guide to London’s Classic Cafes and Fish and Chip Shops (Black Dog Publishing, 176pp, £9.95)

You could use this as a guidebook (in which case perhaps it should come with a health warning), or just enjoy the photos.  It highlights just how ephemeral many of these places are, with atmospheres that rely as much on signage and sauce bottles as tiling and joinery details. Experience has taught us that these are just the sort of premises Ministers find easy to list because – unlike, say, some public housing projects – they have few enemies.

The Meaning of Home by Edwin Heathcote (Frances Lincoln, 192pp, £12.99)

This is a chatty little hardback aiming to decipher the hidden cultural messages of our homes. There are references to Freud (for whom ‘a dream of a house was about the body’ ) and it’s really good on film references:  how, for example, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful life, the ‘baluster globe’ (knob, surely, or finial?) coming off in his hands every time he goes upstairs tips the hero  into a nervous breakdown.   All in all it’s an amusing and accessible read, which pulls lots of information together.

Art Deco Tiles by Hans Van Lemmen (Shire Library, 64pp, £6.99)

Like all the best Shire books, this includes plenty of catalogue and brochure images along with images of tiles in situ.  It covers mass-produced and one-off designs, with work by leading artists (John Skeaping’s incised animals at the infant school in Castleford, Yorkshire, which we have visited) as well as cute and kitsch stuff (a view up Little Miss Muffett’s lacy petticoats, hand-painted by Thea Bridges in 1938).  I’m not sure I agree with its opening sentence: ‘Art Deco is recognised as the leading design movement of the 1920s and 30s’ –how about modernism?  Not that it’s a competition.

Visiting Charles Rennie Mackintosh by Roger Billcliffe (Frances Lincoln, 144pp, £9.99)

This new guide shows how much Mackintosh’s reputation has grown since the first revival of interest in the late 1960s and the formation of the Mackintosh Society in 1973.  Nowadays this is a book for everybody visiting Glasgow, not just architecture enthusiasts.   It lists all his buildings (not just those in his home city), with access details and descriptions which are generally brief, though the major ones get fuller coverage –there are ten pages on the Glasgow School of Art.

The Amazing Mr Mackintosh:  the story of Charles Rennie Mackintosh by Sha Nazir and David Braysher (Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, 36pp, £5.99

My eight year old loved this.  It’s written in the first person (‘Here are the four of us sitting with some friends.  We were nicknamed the Spook School because some people thought our designs looked ghostly and ghoul-like’), and mixes drawings with inset photographs of building details and Mackintosh’s drawings and water colours.  It’s quite snappy, with ‘Mack Facts’ and little mini-biogs of contemporaries.  A good effort in a genre that’s hard to pull off.

Camera Constructs.  Photography, Architecture and the Modern City ed Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray (Ashgate, 380pp, £60)

Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography ed Nathalie Herschdorfer and Lada Umstatter (Thames and Hudson, 256pp, £32)

These two books show not just the enormous influence of photography on architecture (and vice versa), but the growing academic interest in this interaction.   The former comes from a University of East London conference in 2006, which combined academic papers with contributions from artist photographers including Rut Blees Luxemburg and Helene Binet.  Sadly, only the papers make it into the book.   However, the Corbusier volume includes an excellent (and concise) history of architectural photography (including art photography), and introduced me to artists I’d not known before –I was particularly struck by  Stéphane Couturier’s  Chandigarh Replay series, where the architecture looks almost like colourfully woven cloth, and a great photo of Corb himself thumbing his nose while wearing an ornate cardboard crown (circumstances unclear!)  Contributions to  Camera Constructs include Robert Wilson on ‘The Editorial Practice of Andrew Mead’ (in the AJ), and Peter Blundell Jones on how photography has influenced our understanding of modernism.   Its cover has an image by Heidi Specker, ‘Brunnen 3’ (2003), which highlights the close relationship between Brutalism and photography.  Indeed Higgott’s  own contribution  quotes Reyner Banham’s 1955 Architectural Review definition of Brutalism: ‘Memorability as image, clear exhibition of structure, valuation of materials as found’.

Concrete and Culture: A Material History by Adrian Forty (Reaktion, £27) will get the full review it deserves in the next issue.  It’s very broad ranging, looking at concrete in the contexts of  history, nature, religion, politics, photography, labour and even labour relations.  It’s particularly good on films that depict concrete, and the impact they have had.  It’s a book that might convert the sceptic as well as (largely) pleasing the concrete enthusiast.