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Out in the open

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Here Comes The Sun: Architecture and Public Space in Twentieth-Century European Culture by Ken Worpole. Reaktion Books, 2000. 168pp. £22

Turberculosis was the scourge of the city well within living memory, responsible for one death in eight in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was believed fresh air and sunlight would both guard against infection and alleviate the deadly symptoms.

This view coincided with the reaction against the sheer stuffiness of late-nineteenth-century life: its over-formal, over-clad and overdecorated habits.

The Modern Movement, one aspect of this reaction, has inspired a whole library of historical excavation. But in complete contrast (Larraine Worpole's 63 colour photographs are full of people as well as buildings), this book presents it as the physical setting for the rediscovery of the open air.

Faith in fresh air brought the balcony into multi-storey housing, not just for access but for sitting in the sun. It brought the open-air school, closely linked with the ideals of progressive education. By the outbreak of the Second World War, England had 96 open-air day schools and 53 residential ones. They strongly influenced post-war school building.

Above all, this cult brought the lido, or open-air swimming pool, built in the 1930s.

Thirty-five of the 48 constructed were in London (of which only 11 were still in use in 1998). Their decline is usually blamed on our climate, but Worpole notes that outdoor swimming remains popular in Sweden and Finland, where the climate is hardly more welcoming than ours.

He blames the new leisure managerialism, because indoor (and much more costly) leisure facilities are more amenable to professionalisation and privatisation. 'It is always much harder to put a price or value on the pleasures of life outdoors.'

Worpole sees the sanatorium as an icon for early Modern architecture and traces the influence of Aalto's 1933 building at Paimio on a series of British buildings: Thomas Tait's extension to the German Hospital at Hackney, Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre and Owen Williams' Peckham Health Centre, built around its gymnasium and swimming pool, which, when Gropius arrived here as a refugee in 1937, he thought not merely the best new building in London but the only interesting one (see picture).

At Finsbury, Gordon Cullen's murals exhorted the citizens to 'Live Out Of Doors As Much As You Can', and Worpole notes how Rasmussen in his London: The Unique City (1937) found the English park tradition more active and sociable than the continental one. Yet he shows that the revolution in urban recreation and play, spreading across Europe from Scandinavia after the Second World War, stopped short of our shores. He illustrates the Mile End Park in east London, with Piers Gough's Green Bridge across the main road, as one of the UK's very few new city park developments.

He reminds us too of Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, of the intense popularity of the Festival Gardens at Battersea in 1951, and of Joan Littlewood's Fun Palace concept of the 1960s, which he rightly sees as one of those rare moments when the door to a radical opportunity opened and 'was quickly slammed shut by the Labour Party's ingrained puritanism'.

This beautifully produced book makes a host of thought-provoking links between private faces and public places. It will surely make you see familiar and forgotten architectural landmarks in a new light.

Colin Ward is co-author with Peter Hall of Sociable Cities (1998)

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