A backwards look
The Modern House Today Photographs by Nick Dawe and text by Kenneth Powell.
Black Dog Publishing, 2001. 222pp. £24.95 This is an attractive picture book but could have been something more. Taking his cue from FR S Yorke's The Modern House (1934) and, more specifically, The Modern House in England (1937), photographer Nick Dawe has returned to this country's Modernist dwellings of the 1930s - buildings often still best known from their images on first publication in The Architectural Review.
The familiar houses are here - Amyas Connell's High & Over, Maxwell Fry's Sun House, Raymond McGrath's St Ann's Court, Chertsey - but also ones which members of the Twentieth Century Society may have tracked down on their outings but are otherwise obscure. There are substantial variations in quality - spec-built Suntops at Westcliff-on-Sea, for example, is no Willow Road.
Dawe is clearly attuned to the aesthetic of these buildings and presents them to advantage, largely through exterior shots. Sun shines on white render and mature gardens counterpoint the geometric clarity; these houses seem much more integrated with their surroundings than in those raw '30s photos. Look closely and the imperfections in their making or maintenance register too.
The missed opportunity is really to examine the houses 'from a contemporary perspective', as the book's publicity claims it does. There is no scope for Kenneth Powell to do more than provide a sympathetic (but basic) resumÚ of the period and its major protagonists. Restorations are referred to but the questions they have had to address are hardly mentioned. Making these houses fit for today is something which has exercised such architects as John Allan and John Winter but, while the latter at least gets a name check, their work is uninvestigated.
'Too many 1930s modern (and Modernistic) houses have been spoiled by crude extensions, external refacing, internal remodelling, etc', writes Powell - yet the much-altered garden front of Chermayeff 's Bentley Wood is presented over four pages without any comment to that effect in the captions.
Plans are provided only selectively and are grouped together, rather than integrated with the photos. They are presumably meant to be representative, though no rationale for their selection is supplied. It is irritating, then, to find - as, for instance, with both High & Over and The White House - that the plan is referred to in the caption but is not included. Nor is there even a brief bibliography for anyone wishing to explore the topic further.
Perhaps this is carping too much.Anyone who appreciates such houses - and the taste for them is no longer elitist; after all, the National Trust now thinks them to be 'heritage' - is sure to enjoy it.