Out with the old
New Architecture in Britain By Kenneth Powell. Merrell, 2003. 240pp. £29.95
About 25 years ago I attended a lecture by John Summerson for which he had loaded a 'carousel'magazine with 80 slides of buildings. To begin, he simply showed all 80 images without comment.He then asked the audience what these buildings, which were functionally and stylistically diverse, had in common. The answer was that they were all in Britain and had been built within a few years of 1900. I recalled that lecture when I received Kenneth Powell's latest book, which is in essence another 'carousel' of British buildings, this time all built within a year or two of the millennium.
So far so good. Broad reviews and surveys have their place in the appreciation and promotion of architecture. But, if they are to be of much use, they should have a point of view, an explanatory scheme or a critical position. Summerson's lecture brilliantly achieved that. He invested the apparent confusion of his images - that ranged from Gothic Revival to French Empire Classical to Arts and Crafts and beyond - with an order that derived from the nature of the training of their architects.
What emerged was the influence of the great teaching offices of the 19th century on the architecture of fin-de-siècle Britain.
Instantly there was clarity in the previously confused picture. Now, we all know that, as Dogberry asserted in Much Ado About Nothing, 'comparisons are odorous', but the stylistic situation in millennial architecture in Britain is, if anything, more diverse than it was a century ago. This suggests that any review of the contemporary scene should offer an explanation or commentary at least as compelling as Summerson's.
Kenneth Powell's introductory essay in the present book is clearly intended to do just that. It sketches out a broad history of events, buildings and architects in the post-war period and, in the manner of Summerson, establishes something of the influence of training and education in shaping the predispositions of contemporary architects. It also touches upon the influence of the political transformations that have occurred in Britain in that period - from the collectivism of the welfare state to the individualism of Thatcher to Blairism and PFI. It also refers to the agenda of the Urban Task Force, the question of sustainability and the metropolitan/provincial divide. All of this is pertinent, but the essay is far too brief to do the task justice.
The bulk of the book is taken up by brief descriptions - generally two pages each - of 114 buildings by 87 different architects. These are grouped into broad, functional categories:
Infrastructure and Public Buildings, Museums and Heritage, Arts and Leisure, Houses and Housing, Offices and Industry, and Shops and Restaurants. The majority of the buildings are by British architects, of many persuasions - the key word is 'pluralism'. An important difference between 1900 and 2000 is the presence in Britain of the work of architects whose practices are based overseas - Ando, Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, and Viñoly. It is also significant that many British architects receive significant commissions overseas, although these are of necessity excluded from this survey.
At the end I am left uncertain of the purpose of the book. I am reminded of those children's books where you flick the pages and a chap dives off a high board.You can do this here, at least metaphorically - see many friends jumping by and glimpse many tantalising images. However, the brevity and inconsistency of the descriptions leaves much unsaid. Furthermore, the brief bibliography is insufficient to allow easy pursuit of more detail. Maybe the idea of an architecture book as a kind of seed catalogue, with tempting images of what one might grow next summer, has value in our culture of commodification, but both the subject and the track record of the author promise more than is delivered here.
Dean Hawkes is an architect in Cambridge