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Modern propagandist

FRS Yorke - And the Evolution of English Modernism By Jeremy Melvin.Wiley-Academy, 2003. 136pp. £29.95

FRS Yorke was a key figure in the development of the Modern Movement in England during the middle third of the last century. It is curious that there is no previous monograph on such an important figure, so Jeremy Melvin's book is timely, if not overdue.

English Modernism had three major shifts during this period, each marking a change in architectural ambitions. The first period was that of the concrete flat-roofed villas, a period chronicled and in part created by Yorke's The Modern House (1934) - perhaps the most influential architectural book originating in England in the 20th century.

Disillusion with the poor weathering of the white concrete cubes led to the next change, the rediscovery of traditional methods and details - a change especially noticeable in the work of Yorke and Breuer, with their use of brick and stone in the late-1930s.

After the Second World War, architects found themselves in a new world, with the need for large-scale projects for the Welfare State; a challenge that Yorke responded to by forming a large practice - Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardell. Finally, when the influence of American Mies hit England, Yorke had the generosity to hand over design decisions to the young David Allford and Brian Henderson.

So, at each point of change, Yorke was a central figure.

Melvin, quite rightly, concentrates on The Modern House, and the endless changes in its many editions between 1934 and 1962. I never understood why my copy had a cover illustrating an American house by an architect I did not know. Melvin, by explaining Yorke's interest in prefabrication and industrial production, makes the situation clear.

Yorke, at the time he wrote the first edition of The Modern House, was technical editor of the AJ and editor of Specification, whereas his practice consisted of one house and not much else.Hence much of his thinking, and propagandising for the ideology of Modernism, had to take the form of the written word rather than built work.

Yorke was clearly a successful publicist for the new architecture, but what of his own talent as an architect? Did he create any masterpieces, or was he merely competent?

Melvin is curiously reticent about this, and makes no attempt to wow you with lovely images.

My one disappointment with this excellent book is that it does not tell or show us more about Yorke's buildings. Torilla, the houses at Eton and at Stratford-upon-Avon look pretty good to me, but they are all illustrated by old black-and-white photos that we have seen before. What was new to me was Yorke's country house in Wootton in the Cotswolds. Here he put large steel windows into the stone walls with a sureness of touch that is simply beautiful, and reminds us how much we have lost now that conservation officers will not allow such things to happen.

The book opens with a foreword by Simon Allford and ends with a postscript by his father, David. The latter was Yorke's partner, and his piece is both a memory of, and tribute to, Yorke, who emerges as a likeable and very human man - one who loved Modern architecture, fishing, farming, and the good life, and was sometimes a bit naughty in his determination to get what he wanted.

We all owe Yorke a great debt for bringing English architecture out of the narrow confines of this island into the larger world of continental Europe and America.

John Winter is an architect in London

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