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BOOK

REVIEW

Britain: Modern Architectures in History By Alan Powers.Reaktion, 2007.304pp. £16.95

This book forms part of an ambitious series treating modern architecture around the world in 13 volumes - one per country. You can read too much into titles, but the series' subtitle, 'Modern Architectures in History', suggests a love of fractures. The task of turning the confusion of the world into a single, meaningful narrative is seen as hopeless from the start.

As for history, the attitude here is that we're not part of it, but are mistrustful occupants who question our right to be here.

So this isn't architectural history in any ordinary sense of the phrase, but a kind of metanarrative that pays unusual attention to contemporary responses to buildings and their theoretical background.

It is probably primarily aimed at readers who already know the standard history and would like it enriched with new examples and ancillary material usually left out.

For such readers the uneven coverage is a stimulus, not a series of omissions, although some may find too many designers and projects are just names in lists, with long stretches where no single building is examined at length.

Alison and Peter Smithson stand out as glaring exceptions to the rule that only one project per designer is treated, and briey.

No other career is lingered over in this way.

But there are substantial compensations for the missing concentration on buildings.

Maybe Alan Powers feels that he has already 'done' the buildings in his impressive previous publications, so can safely turn now to their surrounding social, political and cultural background. The relation between theory and practice is a continuing theme.

Theory often appears in the form of a book that everyone was reading, most of them works of urban or architectural criticism, but not all.

Occasionally we spread out into film and television: a TV series about landlords, for example, is credited with inuencing the course of council housing. These wider cultural references are sometimes put forward in the spirit of suggestive collage, without detailed attempt to pin down their relevance.

One of the best moments, a description of the treacherous allure of US popular culture in the 1950s, is left hanging in this way, its implications for architecture strongly hinted but not precisely defined.

Many of the most memorable passages are nonarchitectural, or stretch the notion of what belongs in an architectural history. Thus the topic of motorways, ring roads and the presence of cars in cities widens the discussion beyond the edge of the individual architect's work. Powers is at his best on subjects such as the Crittall window system, the Festival of Britain or the fight to save Covent Garden from comprehensive redevelopment.

These seemingly disparate topics each represent, on their different scales, occasions when design questions are swallowed up by wider social concerns.

I suspect that Powers' ideal history would not be a story of individual designers bending the world to their will, but something less neatly resolved, like his account of how the high-rise passed in and out of favour as a form of housing. In this case the arguments were twisted to come out where the protagonists needed them to come out. Cost and efficiency should have lined up on the other side of the debate, but strong passions took things to illogical conclusions. These arguments come round again, not in housing this time to be sure, and are resolved just as blindly as ever: it turns out that even the Smithsons' Economist complex was powered in part by the editor's desire for a 10thoor penthouse.

The book covers the 1950s to 1990s in England, rather than Britain. A single last chapter for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is an easily seen-through disguise. Defining what counts as English isn't so easy, either. Sometimes English work in Germany is included and at other times foreign architects working in England.

It's not taboo to mention nonEnglish designers: Lasdun is illuminated by the comparison with Kahn; Caruso St John less so by a link with Loos. Powers' book packs in so much that it seems unreasonable to bring up omitted subjects, but whether country-by-country division really works for 20th-century architecture remains an almost unasked question.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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