By Murray Fraser
Modern Architecture Through Case Studies, 1945-1990.
By Peter Blundell Jones and Eamonn Canniffe.
Peter Blundell Jones holds a particular place among British architectural historians. Anti-establishment by instinct, his work tends to champion the underdog, the unsung hero. In his earlier writings this meant attacking the Modernist orthodoxy formed by Sigfried Giedion and Nikolaus Pevsner, with its fetish for the abstract tendencies of the ‘Neues Bauen’ (New Building). In his efforts to show there were other approaches to Modernism, Blundell Jones greatly enhanced our appreciation of figures like Hugo Häring and Hans Scharoun, who’d been unfairly expunged from the canon.
More recently Blundell Jones has concentrated on unpicking the impact of critical theory on British architectural writing since the 1990s. He does this by conducting a forensic study of completed buildings, using these as the acid test of architects’ design ideas and their impact on clients, users and cities. His first volume of case studies looked mainly at examples of inter-war Modernism (AJ 13.03.03); now, helped by a colleague, Eamonn Canniffe, he takes the same approach to post-war architecture.
The polemical intention of both volumes is clear. Rightly sceptical of much current discourse, Blundell Jones and Canniffe aim to show that built architecture, like lived experience, is far more complex and nuanced than generalist theories can account for. ‘As so often happens, reality has displaced the neat intellectual models of the academy,’ Canniffe observes of one of his case studies.
What we are presented with instead are 18 fascinating investigations, beginning with Case Study House No 8 in Pacific Palisades, by Charles and Ray Eames, and travelling through in chronological order to Venturi Scott Brown’s National Gallery extension in Trafalgar Square. Blundell Jones generally talks about continental European buildings typified by a softer, ‘organic’ vision of Modernism, usually set delicately in a historical urban context. Canniffe takes on harder-edged, technologically derived designs which often sit in opposition to their surroundings, including Foster’s Willis Faber Dumas offices in Ipswich and Rogers and Piano’s Pompidou Centre in Paris.