To Osbert Lancaster suburbia was a place 'with a hundred and fifty accurate, reproductions of Anne Hathaway's cottage'. This is the popular image of suburbia, reinforced by the cover illustration of this new book with its typical 1930s half-timbered house. But it is soon undercut by a picture of Wharton Street, Finsbury, in the 1820s, and all but destroyed by one of Roehampton's slab blocks in the 1950s. What is this place of such complexity and contradiction?
The answer is well considered in this volume which started life as an internal English Heritage report. Between an excellent and pacily written series of provocations in Andrew Saint's introduction, and the sober sting- in-the-tail on problems of conservation by Eddie Booth, there are four chapters on the historical development of the London suburbs and a gazetteer to examples in London's 32 boroughs.
Chronologically arranged, the main chapters can only deal in generalisations but form interesting, if unevenly referenced, essays in themselves. While there seems to be a good measure of agreement between Andrew Saint and Chris Miele on the origins of London's suburbs in Hackney and Clapham, other issues seem less clear - for instance, the 'semi'. Did it first appear in the late-seventeenth century (p48) or the 1850s (p81)? I think we should be told.
The contribution of the Garden City Movement in creating suburbs is emphasised, as is that of transport. But why is there so little on shops, that element in the suburbs which lets you know when you've left one and arrived at another?
All the authors feel the need to say something deep and meaningful about the nature of suburbs and suburban values, but they fight shy of defining a suburban architecture; presumably we are meant to read the one off the other. The omission is made the more intriguing by Saint's observation that 'Today it is often assumed that architectural scale and grandeur in cities are confined to the centre, whereas the suburbs are ordinary and domestic. Up to at least 1750 you could turn this around.'
While the general essays are provocative, the selective gazetteer of London boroughs is simply irresistible. It is in the nature of suburbs to be somewhat secretive so there is bound to be something new here for most readers.
With often ravishing photographs and a useful bibliography, this book is also a history and gazetteer of the 800 existing (and would-be) conservation areas in London - and a call to arms with a political agenda. Despite the apparent omnipresence of English Heritage, the former glc Historic Buildings Division wielded more clout. Yet now, with many eh staff 'sent to the sticks,' they are ironically better placed to notice the plight of the London suburbs. Put them there and they see conservation areas everywhere. As her contribution to this volume makes clear, Elain Harwood's list of post-war suburbs is especially long - and they are unprotected.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian