BOOKS Searchlight falls on the unfamiliar
This collection of essays (based on a conference at the University of York in 1997) is a sizeable undertaking, with 36 contributors each examining some aspect of architecture between 1880 and 1914. The focus is world-wide and somewhat fuzzy as it roves from New Zealand to Argentina and from Canada to Japan. Middle Europe is the meat in a satisfying sandwich.
One of the normal interpretations of these years is that they saw the Modern Movement in embryo in the shape of Pevsner's 'pioneers'. Yet in terms of, say, steel and reinforced concrete - those quintessentially Modern materials - Michael Stratton proposes a tradition of equal validity based on the work of William Arrol, Gustav Mouchel and the Kahn brothers. With the generous space available in this volume, the searchlight can shine on many such not-so-familiar figures, including New Zealand architect Samuel Hurst Seager, Slovakian Dursan Jurkovic, the Scot William Leiper, and the Transylvanian Karoly Kos.
Despite this attention to those whose work has been seen as peripheral, the bulk of the book presents descriptive essays on familiar architects and their works, such as Webb, Lethaby, Voysey and Gaudi. While these tell their stories well, they give little that is new. This cannot be said, however, of Wendy Hitchmough's essay on St Mary the Virgin, Great Warley, or George Cairns' defence of the services of the Glasgow School of Art. Similarly, Mervyn Miller's study of Parker and Unwin considers, for once, their skill as domestic designers rather than as creators of modern planning, and Christian Debize treats the Ecole de Nancy as a movement in architecture as much as decoration.
Given the break-up of the former ussr and its satellites, there is a welcome concentration on Middle Europe - especially Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Slovakia. If it achieves nothing else, this collection will increase our knowledge about the search for new national identities at the turn of the century; indeed, the creation (if not the imposition) of such identities emerges as one of the book's major themes. This is as true of Germany's desire to stamp its character on Strasbourg as of Wales' Cathays Park. These two essays in particular, by Leo Schmidt and Philip Thomas respectively, enter interesting areas of cultural politics. How could Germany impose its identity on the annexed region of Alsace-Lorraine? Why was the creation of Cardiff's Cathays Park ('shy sibling of Delhi or Canberra') dominated by the grandiloquent Baroque Revival?
Peter Burman, its editor, has had the unenviable task of imposing some unity on the book. For the most part he has succeeded admirably, but one questions the inclusion of some slighter papers, especially those which seem included more for entertainment than edification. Arranged in five sections - Style and Technique, Personalities and Cross-Currents, The Home, The Urban Context, and Attitudes to Conservation - the divisions seem largely superfluous, or at least call out for clear introductions. It is a shame also that the publisher, Donhead, didn't allow more pictures, especially given the amount of unfamiliar work.
The final essay in the volume considers the boulevard architecture of Lisbon. The problems facing conservation in Portugal move the author to call for an international body, with its own charter, on nineteenth-century architecture. A super-Vic. Soc? The thought makes the blood run cold.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian