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'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Design

Lost England 1870-1930 By Philip Davies

The Lime Street Picture House in Liverpool, pictured in the year of its opening in 1912 (picture courtesy of Historic England archive)



This hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, yet it is the details from Philip Davies’s impressive introduction that slap the reader in the face. Reading Davies’s excellent summation of the six decades covered in ‘Lost England 1870-1930’ one encounters some sociological insights that we should be eternally grateful we left behind.
Despite the country being one of the richest in the world thanks to the industrialisation of its cities and large towns, the resulting rapid urbanisation of the same places saw millions living in complete squalor. The lack of decent housing for the drivers of the Industrial Revolution, the working classes, was part of their continued degradation that locked them out from having any stake in the millions of profit being generated. Of course we are well aware nowadays of this exploitation of the labouring masses by the ruling classes, and there were a small number of philanthropic business families. Nevertheless, details outlined by Davies of how wealthy society disregarded their fellow brothers and sisters a centenary or so ago stick in the craw.
For example: cellar houses were commonplace in northern industrial cities; basement dwellings built beneath squalid terraced houses. In the 1860s one fifth of Liverpool’s population lived in cellar houses, eight or nine people in a single unventilated basement, and the city’s Chief Medical Officer of Health noted that ‘fluid matter’ from communal privies on the ground floor oozed into the cellar. It got worse. Thirty years on many cellar houses were closed, but with no provision for replacement housing. This caused such a squeeze for homes across northern cities that many houses in Leeds, Manchester, and seaports created ‘penny hangs’ in their cellars. Anyone staying overnight would drape their bodies over a rope suspended breast high between cellar walls until dawn, when the ends were unfastened and everyone would collapse on to a piss-flooded floor.
This is just a tiny snapshot of the turmoil that was part of extraordinary change experienced by England in the sixty years covered in this book. And if the social record of the country during this time is bleak, then its beauty can be found in the remarkable photographs featured here.’Lost England’ is a follow on from ‘Lost London’, covering the regions of the North West, the Midlands, East England etc and once again the pictures are poignant, elegiac, yet stirring. Look at the mighty civic buildings: the town halls, the libraries, the post offices; see the railways once the envy of the world; why did we ever forgo the elegant and timeless beauty of shopping arcades for banal American-style shopping malls? So much of the Victorian and Edwardian age was beautiful and this book will make you wonder why we let much of it slip through our hands, or tumbled it with the very same hands. As Davies writes, ‘Embrace the past with remembrance, but the future with optimism. Look back, but don’t stare.’

Lost England 1870-1930 by Philip Davies (Atlantic Publishing) £45

* Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement 

The Green Ghost Town

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Masdar City (picture Foster and Partners)

‘If you build it, he will come’ is the castles-in-the-air catchline of the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’, where the regular Joe character played by Kevin Costner pursues his quixotic plan of building a baseball diamond after hearing voices emanating from his crop field in Iowa.

The (fictional) idea of building a small folly based on Midwestern murmurs coming from your meadows is a disturbing prospect to most rational beings. So where does the construction of the world’s first (real) zero-carbon city – and in the desert, no less – rank on the scale of delusion and downright daftness? Pretty high, it seems.

In 2006 work began on a masterplan drawn up by Foster and Partners for Masdar City, which was trumpeted as a carbon neutral ‘eco-city’ near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Its completion date is meant to be this year, but things don’t look good.

The city was intended to accommodate 50,000 residents and be powered by a 22-hectare field of almost 90,000 solar panels. Usage of electricity and water was to be controlled by sensors, and Masdar was supposed to be car-free: residents and workers would journey in futuristic pods programmed to go where commanded, while the compact urban scale would easily allow travel on foot or bicycle. It was hoped this utopian vision could be something of a Silicon Valley of renewable energy, and as a result attract global businesses to locate there.

However, the permanent residents that live in Masdar are all students at the Institute of Science and Technology – just 300 of them – and design manager of the city, Chris Wan, admits that Masdar is unlikely to ever pass 50 per cent carbon neutrality. The travel pod scheme was abandoned after two stops were built: the emergence of low-emission cars quickly put paid to that plan. Only a few international companies meanwhile have registered a base at Masdar, such as General Electric, Mitsubishi, and Siemens (which says it has 800 employees there) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has taken over one of the major buildings, in what seems little more than a symbol of solidarity with the ruling powers. Much of the city remains empty, unloved, and unused.

Masdar City being on the fringes of Abu Dhabi means many workers commute, and it is said there is little in the way of human activity (aside from the students) after office hours. Abu Dhabi International Airport is nearby too, so many workers shuttle in and out of the city, making the travel agents in Masdar one of the few places where there’s a thrum of activity.

Other facilities on offer to any prospective citizen sound uninspiring. It reads like a bog-standard gated-community checklist: a medium-sized supermarket; a couple of cafes; a cinema, and so on; not very exciting for a place where people will be looking to escape usual  temperatures of forty to fifty degrees on a regular basis. If people do venture outdoors, the streets are made narrow and short to reduce heat, and pathways between buildings are shaded. But still, the plans all sound rather lacklustre for the major challenge of weaving a social fabric in a new community ensconced in the desert.

So why build a city here to begin with?

The UAE is one of the world’s major oil producers (globally, their reserve is the seventh-largest) but the remarkable drop in prices in the last few years has seen moves to ween their economy away from its dependency on fossil fuels. Masdar City was seen as the antidote. The President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, backed the idea of a smart city, but the most recent estimated cost of $22bn (which naturally will rise if they ever do complete the project) it is quite a tab to pick up, even for him.

Ten years in to the project, and behind schedule, is this the ultimate hubristic gesture of our egotistic mismanagement of the natural environment? Time will tell. We have to question Masdar City’s environmental impact for good in a part of the world that hosts an annual Formula One race, that builds snow-caked ski slopes in its deserts, and constructs golf courses or islands in the sea. We also have to decide if this smart city model has any practical value for the rest of the world, considering its dependency on extreme levels of sunshine that are the norm in the Gulf states, but found few places elsewhere.

At the time of writing only five per cent of the city has been built and the resident count of a few hundred seems unlikely to grow. The completion date has been pushed back to 2030. Masdar City was meant to lead the way in smart, sustainable cities. But now that the idea of a zero-carbon city has gone up in smoke, it may have to check its ambitions and reluctantly reconfigure itself as a large modern education campus: with a very costly first lesson built in.

UTOPIAN VISIONS

Dongtan, China

It was to be built on a giant island on the Yangtze River and to eventually accommodate half a million people, with the slogan ‘Better city; better life’, Dongtan was to be unveiled as a joint-project between engineering company Arup and Chinese developers at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But dreams of a green city with water taxis, state-of-the-art recycling and energy renewal has seemingly sank without trace.

Auroville, India

Envisioned as an international community free of money, religion, and government. It was designed by French architect Roger Anger on a former French colonial area on the coast of south-east India. Its visionary founder was Mirra Alfassa, a French expat known as ‘The Mother’, who saw it as a ‘community without nations’. It was built for 50,000 inhabitants, but only 2,000 have settled there. It has struggled with crime and allegations of child abuse and corruption.

After the Fire – the Great Fire of London

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This painting shows the enormous scale of The Great Fire. Unknown artist, c.1700. (Credit London Fire Brigade)

There must have been some sense of irony in London from the fact that the replacement churches for many of those destroyed in the Great Fire were funded by a Coal Tax. Frying pans and fires bring Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s change in circumstances to mind these days. As calamitous as he was as Lord Mayor of the city, he could not top one of his predecessors Thomas Bludworth. When roused to deal with the Great Fire, which started on 2 September 1666, Bludworth dismissed it with a response not quite befitting public office: ‘a woman might piss it out’ he said, before returning to bed. No doubt he was far from gruntled, to use PG Wodehouse’s word, when he awoke.

In slight mitigation, small fires were a common occurrence at the time. But if Bludworth had been more of a jobsworth, then history might not have recorded the devastating outbreak that spread quickly and raged for four days. The catastrophe almost destroyed the entire city: at least 13,000 houses were lost, 87 parish churches were destroyed, including St Paul’s Cathedral, although the death toll was remarkably low. Fewer than 10 people were known to have died, but the figure was probably higher as many bodies would have been cremated in the intense heat; poor Londoners’ deaths would have gone unrecorded most likely.

In ‘After The Fire’, Angelo Hornak leaves the bodies (or lack of them) aside and focuses on the Baroque. Hornak details the huge rebuilding job of the London churches in the sixty years that followed the fire. It’s a lavish book filled with his impressive photography, which is accompanied by readable and unfussy architectural text. The publication is a hefty slab though, so it is unlikely to be used as a mobile reference for ambling from church to church (perhaps the publisher will include a digital download with future purchases?).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London will no doubt see a flurry of publications attached to it. The story of how Christopher Wren and his colleagues Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and James Gibbs, seized the opportunity of turning a city’s devastation into a triumph by making it more beautiful is worth retelling in the context of the homogenisation of present-day architecture. The skills of these men, and the many others involved in the buildings, meant London was presented with one of the most idiosyncratic skylines in the world, thanks to joined-up government, openness to influences from European neighbours in Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands, and a desire to build for spiritual enrichment, as much as economic necessity. An engraving by Johannes Kip from 1724 called ‘A Prospect of the City of London’ captures the scene perfectly, with the many steeples of the rebuilt churches scattered like wayward children around St Paul’s newly realised beauty: its father-figure dome.

kip-panorama

Things could have been very different. When Wren was handed overall charge of the church-building programme (St James’s, Piccadilly is the only one he claimed to have solely designed incidentally), his master plan proposed replacing medieval London with a new geometric grid, with grand avenues converging on the piazza at St Paul’s. Thankfully, the only elements of the plan stamped were the building of new quays along the Thames and the Fleet. Speed was of the essence: the city had to be rebuilt quickly to maintain its dominance as a centre of commerce. Yet Hornak’s book shows how God, if He didn’t quite trump Mammon in making London the attraction it is today, played a supporting role in the city’s magnetism through this rich array churches. Pull up a pew and savour it.

After the Fire – London Churches in the Age of Wren, Hooke, Hawksmoor and Gibbs by Angelo Hornak (Pimpernel Press)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

Marcel Breuer – the last modernist

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St. John’s Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-68; bell- banner and church. Picture credit: Peter Sieger

There is an arresting photograph of Marcel Breuer sitting in the upper-floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It is 1967, a year after his building has opened and Breuer, dressed in a smart suit, and in an armchair with his back to one of the museum’s signature trapezoid windows, looks as if he is explaining something – perhaps trying to justify something.

From the picture one gets a sense that this was something he had been used to throughout his long career; even here, in his most popular (eventually) and best-known building.

If Breuer was spelling something out, then he didn’t look troubled by it: his body language has vim, even with him slouching slightly to the right in the chair, which was probably to soften his imposing frame. What would have exasperated Breuer though, and is not easily explained away, is that in the 35 years since his death, he is primarily remembered for his furniture designs, while his architectural works have been largely overshadowed. But an impressive and weighty new monograph by Robert McCarter (published by Phaidon Press) should realign Breuer’s position in the canon of modern masters, however.

When he died, Breuer was hailed as “the last modernist”. McCarter bumps him up the VIP list in a club that includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe (a place that always had something of a rarefied air).

McCarter calls Breuer “the last of the first moderns and the first of the last moderns” thanks to a career spanning 50 years that saw him criss-crossing many bridges of the so-called International Style, before embarking on his own artistic course in a combination of iconic private houses and public buildings in Europe and the United States.

Breuer was among the first students in the Bauhaus at the birth of modernism and, towards the latter part of his career, he readily swam against the flood of steel and glass that was defining modernism’s dull death.

Once Breuer discovered the malleability of reinforced concrete, a beautiful relationship was formed, with béton brut (raw concrete) being used to memorable effect in the building of the Unesco headquarters in Paris (1952-58), with the collaboration of Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.

Phaidon’s tome covers 100 buildings and 24 furniture designs, and is a joy to spend time over, with its beautiful array of photographs, and McCarter’s exhaustive – but never exhausting – text on the designs (for a useful measuring stick on the depth of detail, here is McCarter on Flainé, a ski resort by Breuer built in the 1960s: “the wood is doussié, similar to teak, imported from Cameroon in French West Africa”).

Breuer’s ideas on architecture were made manifest in his practice, not in polemics, so the written documentation McCarter has to work on by his subject is limited. The author does a satisfying excavation job nonetheless, and we learn a little more about what made Breuer tick: he was sceptical of dogma; he was to have been a much-loved teacher; and he managed to both build his commissions and run a successful practice at the same time – a rare feat. (He also employed an unusual number of women in those old-fashioned days).

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UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, 1952-8; lobby and promenade of Secretariat. Picture credit: Fonds Zehrfuss.

Before writing this book McCarter was already an admirer of Breuer (as was I), and I’m happily in agreement with him on what he regards as Breuer’s greatest architectural work: St John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota (1953-68). That said, the tone is objective and the author does not spare the critical rod when it is warranted: many of Breuer’s houses went over budget, while some of the large public buildings had serious overheating problems inside, for example.

But, all things considered, it is time to rightfully rank Breuer alongside Mies, Wright and Le Corbusier, and this publication should aid that cause. Many believe his position of architectural greatness would have already been secured but for the remoteness of his best work (that fact that it is sited on the rolling plains of Minnesota means few people get to see St John’s). Breuer’s reticence to pronounce from upon high, or put forward jargonistic soundbites – unlike some others – did not help his case for future recognition either.

If Breuer were alive he would likely have been diffident at the thought of any fuss being made over his legacy. But that would only be true to form. Those who worked with him or knew him well said he was always both self-deprecating and self-effacing. As he once stated in a letter to a friend: “All my life I have been wondering how somebody can be a genius from morning to evening.”

Breuer by Robert McCarter is published by Phaidon Press.

  • Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement

 

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Resort Town of Flaine, Haute-Savoie, France, 1960-9; view from below of Grand Hotel (Le Flaine). Picture credit: Yves Guillernaut

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