From a distance, this does not seem promising territory. It is the part of London which has changed most dramatically since Nikolaus Pevsner began the Buildings of England more than 50 years ago, and also the part with the fewest great buildings. Only one of the boroughs treated here was even in London at all when the first editions appeared; the rest were in bland Essex. So it is a subject still in motion and hard to pin down, but at the same time architecturally more featureless than most of the metropolis.
Bridget Cherry and Charles O'Brien, the authors of the revision, have not allowed themselves to view their subject in this negative light. They take the bedraggled Medieval churches of outer London suburbs, remarkable for being there at all rather than for truly outstanding features, and pay them scrupulous attention.
The focus shifts somewhat - it becomes a palimpsest of human intentions and ironies of circumstance that leads to no grand result, but it makes for compelling reading.
The result is one of the most absorbing volumes in the series.
Perhaps the interest here is more human and less strictly architectural than in most of the other volumes. There are so many strangely particular institutions - the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor, the People's Palace (providing a drawing room and library for those without them), societies helping the labouring classes to keep clean, churches conducting their services in other languages than English, art galleries with a purpose, housing projects which demonstrate a theory.
The People's Palace, the surviving parts of which are incorporated into Queen Mary College, was inspired by one of Walter Besant's novels.
Contemporary polemics like Bitter Cry of Outcast London and Child of the Jago turn up in the suggestions for further reading, as if to say that you need to know what the inhabitants thought and felt to understand the buildings. Of course the novels were usually written by outsiders, sometimes even foreigners like Jack London, but the story of the East End is inseparable from a two-way assimilation which still continues. Its historical stages remain extremely poignant, and helpful too for understanding the changes of the present.
Readers need not fear that the Buildings of England has gone soft or sentimental. It is just that in its present format there is time to explore the life of institutions more fully, to mention unrealized plans and the changing perceptions of users. The treatment of Tower Bridge is a telling case in point:
the new entry acknowledges that it forms part of the mythology of London, not a view that there was time for in the first edition. But this more indefinite aspect is handled briskly, with economical quotation.
In Pevsner's London 2 (everything except the City and Westminster), Tower Hamlets got 33 pages - now it has 330. So there is time to tell that the old church at West Ham was subjected to careful SPAB repairs and to point out the visible signs of them. I found myself following these church descriptions like a story, wondering what new idea the next person who got his hands on the building would come up with, and how it would be adjusted, defaced, or improved as a consequence.
Certain themes persist through the volume: town halls are great repositories of public energy in places like Ilford and Walthamstow. Libraries are even thicker on the ground, if less grandiose. Housing turns up in many guises. Lansbury, Gidea Park and Becontree - each of these is a beacon or a caution at different times in its life; they constitute complex and unpredictable stories.
Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons' housing blocks near the Blackwall Tunnel entrance, receive the only markedly unfair treatment in the book.
In Elizabeth Williamson's Docklands (AJ 12.02.98), a kind of interim report on which the present volume builds, the scheme was given a plan and cutaway drawings which somewhat sweetened the criticism. In fact, my only unfulfilled wish for the series is that there could be more plans and an iconographic index, and also that the maps should show shapes more accurately and less diagrammatically than they do now. But finally it must be said that this sixth London volume, which completes the series, pays perhaps best tribute to the city of them all, finding whole new species of riches in the most unlikely places.
Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University