The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Books roundup May 2013

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist

Amanda Reeser Lawrence (Yale University Press, 248pp, £30)

Lawrence, who is an architect and critic as well as a historian, has concentrated on a close study of just six of Stirling’s projects from the 1950s to the 1970s: the Ham Common flats (1958), the Churchill College competition (1959), the Leicester University Engineering Building (1963), the Florey Building at Oxford (1971), the Nordrhein-Westfalen Museum, Düsseldorf (1975), and his entry to the Roma Interrotta competition (1978). Her central argument is that it’s misleading to see Stirling’s career as a sudden switch from modernism to a radically different post-modernist phase, because the earlier works, including the three ‘Red Buildings’ (all of which we have been involved with recently) drew on historical precedents and forms. She rates the Florey Building (currently listed only Grade II—despite our call for II* recognition) as the most interesting of the Red Buildings: ammunition for an upgrade request.

Routes, Roads and Landscapes

ed Mari Hvattum, Brita Brenna, Beate Elvebackk and Janike Kampevold Larsen (Ashgate, 264pp, £65)

This collection of essays comes from a conference in Oslo as part of a study of the aesthetic impact of routes (their impact on landscape, and the experiences of landscape gained in travelling along them).  It has enormous breadth, with sections on C18 topographical literature and travel writing, and plenty of photos of Norwegian public toilets and landscape viewing platforms.   The C20 content includes an excellent chapter on the M1 by Peter Merriman which draws on toys and children’s literature to emphasise the excitement of the new motorway, a study of the development of the US Interstate system, and a comparison of German and US parkways.

Modern Lighting of the 50s

by Alexander Koch (Arnoldsche, 128pp, £35)

This is essentially a reprint of  Neuzeitliche Leuchten, published in 1953 by Alexander Koch, confusingly the son of Alexander Koch who was a major pioneer of German interior design periodicals (Innendekoration from 1890, and Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration (1897-1932)).  Koch junior (1895-1969)  joined the family firm in 1920, and was an active editor.  His book, which claims to be ‘a standard work for collectors and modern lighting enthusiasts’, is bilingual, though the translation feels clunky. It assembles over 250 lights by designers and manufacturers from America, Scandinavia, Germany and Italy (though not Britain), and includes examples by Isamu Noguchi, Walter Gropius, and Richard Neutra.  It’s organised by type (desk, working, floor, wall and ceiling) with a section on ‘Light within Space’ which aims to ‘testify to the scenographic potential of the new lighting culture.’ A new introduction by Bernd Dicke outlines the history of electric light fittings and of the Koch family, though how they survived the Nazi years is unclear. He says that Koch publications ‘accomplished a deft balancing act between asceticism and wanton aesthetic indulgence.’

Living in a Modern Way:  California Design, 1930-1965

ed Wendy Kaplan (Los Angeles County Museum of Art/MIT Press, 360pp, £41.95)

I’d love to have seen this exhibition, which has toured from LA to Japan and is on its way to Brisbane for 2014 – why has no UK venue taken it?  The massive catalogue is some compensation, and the essays include British contributions from Jeremy Aynsley and Pat Kirkham.  Research was funded by the Getty, and I love the fact that corporate sponsorship came from Barbie (as in dolls).  The quite narrow time scale and geographic specificity make for a much more tightly focused study than the V&A’s recent surveys of C20 design, with the inclusion of both icons and refreshingly unfamiliar objects.  The title comes from a 1951 writer, who concluded that California design ‘is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions… It has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way.’ Which was what, exactly?  Kaplan notes that Californian modernism ‘like European modernism… was functionalist, anti-ornament, and utopian in the conviction that design and technology could transform society.’ But the perfect climate for indoor/outdoor living allowed a ‘looser, warmer, more ad-hoc modernism’.  She sees the fact that Californian modernism ‘still retained the individuality of the Arts and Crafts movement of being particular to a place, of being joined to nature’  was key to what made it distinctive and influential.

As well as architecture (including the famous Case Study Houses programme), furniture, ceramics, metalwork, fashion and textiles, and industrial and graphic design are covered , and extensively illustrated.   The book’s cover is a riff on Saul Bass’s album sleeve design for Frank Sinatra conducts Tone Poems of Color (1956). The previous year he had designed the menacing poster and title sequence for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm.  A  New Yorker relocated to Los Angeles, Bass was ‘a protagonist in the transformation of graphic design from a print-based discipline to one that fully embraced film’, and it seems appropriate that LA’s biggest industry is acknowledged in this way.

i.e. Patterns of Thought

ed Ellen Rowley and Maxim Laroussi (Architecture Republic , 376pp, £20)

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This chunky little paperback with its lovely textured cover is designed as a livre de poche  ‘to accompany architects through their lives’. Its ‘musings’ on Irish architecture offer a variety of thoughts and ideas worth returning to, and it would make a great travel companion for the architecture-minded visitor to Ireland.  The mix of academic essays, journalism, talks, lectures and interviews dates from 1943 to 2010, with authors ranging from Seamus Heaney to architects, historians and political commentators.  Irish architecture is shown as both very aware of its Celtic and vernacular roots and  at the same time outward-looking and engaged with international discourse.  The editors are  especially interested in the nature of architectural  texts, arguing for writing to be valued as an integral part of what constitutes the discipline of architecture, rather than just a commentary on or critique of it.

I enjoyed the diversity of authorship and the strong sense of architecture as part of a broadly perceived joined-up culture, with shared interests in – for example – the relationship between the urban and the rural:  Catherine Marshall  (primarily an art historian) examines the practices  of the architect Dominic Stevens, who moved to one of the least populated parts of the country and drew inspiration from working on the land,  and the conceptual artist Juliana Walters whose work  Potato Picking in Ballyfad consisted of her digging her neighbour’s potato field in high heels.