The Twentieth Century Society

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Book reviews

Books Round Up: The Isokon, Pierre Koenig, Concrete Conservation and more.

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

Rescue and Reuse: Communities, Heritage and Architecture (eds. Merlin Waterson and Ian Morrison, RIBA Publishing, 144pp, £35, 2019)

Although planned as a handbook for community groups wanting to take on a major conservation project, this book is not a step-by-step guide but a photo-rich collection of upbeat and inspiring examples, most of them completed by Building Preservation Trusts. It was jointly commissioned by RIBA and the Architectural Heritage Fund (the author was AHF’s Chairman and the editor its Chief Executive). It’s good as far as it goes, but it would have been nice to see more in-depth case studies complete with plans and financial details and maybe less rose-tinted story telling. I also wish there were more C20 examples. As we know all too well, regeneration of C20 buildings can be even more difficult to achieve than regeneration of older ones more readily accepted as heritage. Only three C20 examples, Bo’ness Hippodrome (1911), Kelvingrove Bandstand (1925) and Saltdean Lido (1938), are included, although the Venetian Waterways at Great Yarmouth (1928) get a mention. The Art Deco Havens department store in Southend-on-Sea is cited as a possible future case (with a proposed new use as an Age Concern hub), and maybe some post-war schemes will follow. The foreword, by Rod Hackney, perpetuates the popular (and misleading) conception of the 1960s and 70s as a time when ‘modernists held sway’ and had no time for the sensitive integration of new and old. Another gripe: the ‘radical reordering’ of Leicester Cathedral to incorporate the new Richard III tomb gets high praise. This was opposed by C20, as it destroyed Sir Charles Nicholson’s 1927 scheme. But I totally endorse the core message: ‘Engagement with the local community is usually the way to ensure that a scheme is both successful and sustainable.’

Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice (eds. Catherine Croft and Susan Macdonald, Getty Publications, 208pp, £45). 

I’m one of the editors of this title, but it’s hard to find detailed advice on conservation of concrete, so I want to draw it to your attention. We tried hard to find a representative range of building types and different sorts of concrete which had been conserved in a sensitive way, including Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, Lasdun’s National Theatre, Lubetkin’s enclosures at Dudley Zoo and a sculpture by Donald Judd. If you are dealing with spoiling concrete on a significant C20 building, it’s a very useful resource.

The Giedion World: Siegfried Giedion and Carola Giedion Welcker in Dialogue (ed. Almut Grunewald, Scheidegger & Spiess, 420pp, £85)

 The work of the Swiss historian and architecture critic Siegfried Giedeon (1888–1968) had a big impact in the UK, but he was also well-known across Europe and the USA. He was the first secretary-general of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, and taught at MIT and Harvard University. Both Space, Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command were enormously influential. His biography has been translated into English, but that of his wife Carola (which had an introduction by German architect Gottfried Boehm) remains only in German, although she too was a distinguished and much published author. Barbara Hepworth described her ‘as one of the very few people in the world who really understand the language of sculpture’. After Carola’s death in 1979, their son moved into the family house in Zurich, and it was not until after his death in 2016 that it was finally cleared out. In the loft were crates of photographs and over 5000 letters, 1000 of them between Siegfried and Carola. This book presents this archive, and shows just how influential and perceptive Carola was. It is of course selective, with groups of documents chosen to illuminate key periods, beautifully photographed in facsimile, and translated and annotated to engage a general reader. It conveys the excitement of exploring an archive and the mix of incidental, banal and revealing snippets that historians weave into narrative. I enjoyed learning that Carola was willing to move out of the Isokon (see review below) and to accept hospitality from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, despite dreading his wife’s  ‘constant stream of chatter’, as she found the former ‘very expensive’. 

Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain (Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, Batsford, 240pp, £25) 

This is a study of a single building, the Isokon flats (Wells Coates, 1934) in Belsize Park, its clients Jack and Molly Pritchard, and Jack’s Isokon furniture company. Magnus Englund lived in the penthouse (and generously hosted C20 visits), and set up the excellent gallery in its garage. There are plenty of well-told and illustrated stories about the Pritchards and their distinguished tenants: rarely can so many interesting and articulate people have been crammed together in such close proximity. The later history of the building’s decline and triumphant rebirth is also recorded.

Balkrishna Doshi: Architecture for the People (Mateo Kries, Jolanthe Kugler and Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, Vitra Design Museum, 400pp, £60)

This is a catalogue to an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum near Basle until September. Those lucky enough to be going on the C20 India trip this winter will see many works by Doshi, who in 2018 became the first Indian architect to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Born in 1927, he worked for Corbusier on the design of Chandigarh, both in Paris and on site. Until now the best source of information on Doshi has been James Steele’s 199 monograph, Rethinking Modernism in the Developing World, with the extraordinary cave-like underground gallery in Ahmedabad on its cover (on our itinerary). With its mosaic-covered interconnecting multiple dome roof, images of this building have skewed appreciation of Doshi’s interests. What emerges here is an extraordinary story of architectural evolution with an international impact (Doshi first lectured at the RIBA in 1966).

Pierre Koenig: a View from the Archive, (Neil Jackson, Getty Publications, 320pp, £40). 

Ex-C20 trustee Neil Jackson (Professor of Architecture at the University of Liverpool) led our very successful C20 trip to Los Angeles back in 2004. He was already an expert on steel-framed Californian modernism, and this book, the result of an intense period of study in the Koenig archives at the Getty, allows him to explore the legacy of an architect he knew both personally and through his buildings in greater depth. It also, like the Giedion book, puts archive material upfront, and asks intelligent questions about its interpretation. It elegantly reproduces drawings and photographs now held at the Getty, but holds the reader at a distance from Koenig’s incandescent all-in-capitals letters to uncooperative contractors (the text is transcribed, but we don’t get to share the visceral quality of the typed page in facsimile, as in the Giedion book). What we do get is a much more curated story, supplemented by interviews and material from beyond the archive, so that this is a really rounded study of Koenig, not just a guide to the archives.


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