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Book reviews

Books Round Up: British Surrealism, London Street Signs and more of our favourite Lockdown Reads

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

Stuck in London for much of the summer, Alistair Hall’s London Street Signs brought me joy. It might sound nerdy, but it’s not just for font fanatics. Hall is a co-founder of the children’s writing and mentoring centre Ministry of Stories, as well as being a graphic designer. His images, detailed captions and entertaining text made me look at street signs with renewed aesthetic appreciation and curiosity.

Speaking of Buildings: Oral History in Architectural Research (eds Janina Gosseye, Naomi Stead et al) looks at how oral sources can contribute to architectural history in its widest sense. Not just formal interviews with famous architects, but the voices of people involved in the production and use of buildings (getting the perspective of a building’s cleaners sounds a good idea). One of the contributors here, Christine Wall, wrote about her work with the South Bank Centre’s construction team in C20, issue 2013/2. Anyone doing oral history interviews should definitely read Andrea Merrett on ‘When Subjects Cry’ and Ashley Paine’s account of being stood up by Mario Botta, and how their subsequent email dialogue confounded expectations in a revealing way.

Christopher Beanland’s Lido definitely made me want to go for a swim. If he really has visited all these gorgeous examples I’m intensely jealous. The book is an idiosyncratic mix: partly a gazetteer of new and classic outdoor pools around the world, partly a reflection on how they inspire us. He interviews regular pool users, and argues in the chapter ‘Swimming in Art’ that it’s more than just Hockney. The photographs are fabulous.

Hans Scharoun and the Development of Small Apartment Floor Plans Romeo & Julia 1954-59 gives the reader a sense of trawling through an archive with a specialist guide on hand (authors M Peter and U Tillman). The Berlin Academy of the Arts has a vast collection of drawings, photographs and correspondence bequeathed by the German architect, but the focus here is on a single stand-out project. I saw the 18-storey Romeo tower and horseshoe-shaped Julia housing blocks (delightfully described here as having a ‘lace collar-like footprint’) on our trip to Stuttgart last year, but I hadn’t appreciated the complexity of their planning. The book, with the different styles of drawing collated on different paper stocks, is beautifully produced.

Dulwich Picture Gallery’s British Surrealism exhibition was an early victim of Covid-19, though there is a virtual tour of it available on their website. This book, however, is pretty good compensation. It’s designed by James Hunter, C20’s Art Director, and Stephen Coates, and it’s full of playful Surrealist riffs: mirrored pages, peek-a-boo cut-outs and clever text overlays. Good essays too, including Sasha Llewellyn on British Women Surrealists. Image credit © Alick Cotterill

Harry Seidler: the Exhibition. Harry Seidler is best known for the Rose Seidler House in Sydney, built for his mother and now a house museum seen as one of the finest examples of mid-20th century modern domestic architecture in Australia. It’s a real shame that although the exhibition Harry Seidler: Painting toward Architecture toured over twenty venues worldwide, its only UK stop was in Belfast. There was a book (Harry Seidler: Lifework) linked to that, so what’s the point of another one? Well, the curator makes the point that ‘Exhibitions are such ephemeral ventures that they absolutely must be documented, and a book remains the surest way.’ The video tours that we’ve been offered these last few months mostly fail to deliver the exhibition experience, but this book does almost make me feel I was there, and, with so much ephemera included, it’s probably a less exhausting option. It also explains how the exhibition came about and how it evolved, and asks what architectural exhibitions in general can achieve.

The Architecture of Temple Moore. Robert Drake adds: Gavin Stamp claimed that Temple Moore (1856–1920) was the greatest of all late-Victorian church architects. He was latterly in partnership with his son-in-law Leslie Moore (the name a coincidence) who completed several of his churches between the wars. Geoff Brandwood’s book first appeared in 1997, but the new edition has his excellent colour photography bringing out the dramatic qualities of Moore’s churches, many in Yorkshire. He was a strong influence on inter-war church architects such as J Harold Gibbons, Goodhart-Rendel and Cachemaille-Day. His masterpiece was St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate (Grade I) where C20 with the Victorian Society managed to ensure a re-think of damaging proposals.Members get £10 off this title: email


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