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Industrial might

Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology By Michael Stratton and Barrie Trinder. E & FN Spon, 2000. 236pp. £29.99

Are we becoming a nation more at ease with the spalling concrete of our industrial past than the weather-worn sandstone of the ruined castle?

In 1914, the Futurist architect Antonio Sant'Elia declared: 'We feel that we are no longer the men of the cathedrals, the palaces, the assembly halls; but of big hotels, railway stations, immense roads, colossal ports, covered markets, brilliantly lit galleries, freeways, demolition and rebuilding schemes.' For the authors of this book the prediction has clearly come true.

Today, the fate of industrial monuments preoccupies us in the way that abandoned country houses did for much of the 20th century. The kind of buildings synonymous with Brynmawr or Battersea are among the most difficult to re-use and save for future generations. But should we even be bothering and, if so, how do we evaluate the landscape of post-industrial Britain? This book is an essential guide.

Given the example of Bankside, hopes are now high for the preservation and good management of the industrial heritage. The recent appointment of Sir Neil Cossons (who has written the foreword to this volume) as the new chairman of English Heritage is a clear sign of changing values. As an industrial archaeologist he brings to EH, and the whole conservation fraternity, a methodical eye uncorrupted by notions of style or an architectural historian's connoisseurship. A good thing about this approach is that it can ignore style - a bad thing is that it does.

Architectural history has been loath to employ theoretical models derived from continental philosophy. Perhaps it has been embarrassed at architects' ready acceptance of undigested chunks of Derrida and the rest, or just too reluctant to jump the moat around its own empiricism. Though this book will be the standard work on the subject for many years to come, by being called Industrial Archaeology it may further erode the study of industrial monuments in the canon of architectural history - a development pushing the latter further into the ghetto.

Perhaps that doesn't matter.Here we have a splendid, well-organised study divided by functions, supported by many unfamiliar references, and illustrated by a wealth of pictures from the RCHME.

Progressively, the study becomes a little repetitious, and in its contextual introductions to each chapter, a little formulaic.

While the authors clearly have no trouble in ascribing importance to various monuments as exemplars of particular industrial processes, their choice often points up the lack of serious research on such buildings.

But welcome though the current volume is, until publishers give rusting monuments the same kind of visual values afforded the country house or the cathedral, they will remain undeservedly in the second division.

Julian Holder is co-ordinator of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies at Edinburgh College of Art

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