Alan Powers has established a reputation as a critic of independent mind and broad sympathies. Although the Modern Movement is in his blood - his father was a founder of the Architects' Co-Partnership, of Brynmawr Rubber Factory fame - Powers has focussed his attention on figures outside the Modernist mainstream (Oliver Hill, Tayler & Green) and those ambivalent in their response to Modernism (H.S. Goodhart-Rendel), or downright antagonistic (Albert Richardson). He recently wrote a penetrating text on The Twentieth Century House in Britain (AJ 03.02.05).
Powers' introductory essay to this new book, occupying little more than 30 pages, leaves one wanting more - it is just a brilliant sketch. He challenges the old orthodoxies of Pevsner, J.M. Richards, Giedion and others, and convincingly argues the case for British Modernism as an evolution of Arts and Crafts thinking. Britons found a convenient route out of traditionalism in Scandinavian architecture - 'we would be wise to back the Swedes', P. Morton Shand wrote in 1930.
As early as the mid-'30s, the 'white Modern' aesthetic, and corresponding preoccupation with concrete construction, was fading, as brick, timber and stone made a comeback in the work of Chermayeff, Goldfinger, and F.R.S. Yorke. The Modern Movement was never the 'alien' force that blimpish reactionaries such as Reginald Blomfield alleged. Nor were most of the prominent advocates of Modernism very left-wing, though the mood changed as war in Europe loomed. The rise of the Modern Movement in Britain, says Powers, reflected its increasing pragmatism, the fact that it had 'come to terms with issues of national identity' and the degree to which it was imbued with English Romantic notions of place. It was not, in short, the mechanistic orthodoxy that some latter-day critics sought to bury.
The greater part of this book is devoted to a workmanlike, but invaluable, series of short accounts of the leading practitioners of the 1930s, illustrated with archive illustrations and new colour photographs by Morley von Sternberg, reproduced to a high standard. Lubetkin, Connell Ward & Lucas, Mendelsohn and other leading lights are all here but so are lesser-known practitioners such as Geoffrey Bazeley (who worked from Cornwall) and Yorkshire-based John Proctor. Goodhart-Rendel, who was never a Modernist, and Charles Holden and Owen Williams, designers who defy easy categorisation, are also included. The book is an important source for the careers of women architects such as Elisabeth Benjamin, Margaret Justin Blanco White, Charlotte Bunney and Dora Gordine, whose achievements remain insuffi ciently documented.
A beautiful book then, packed with ideas, elegantly written and with broad appeal.
If not quite the definitive account that Powers is so qualified to write, it should feed an increasingly intelligent reappraisal of Modernism in British architecture.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist