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Architecture, Building and Social Change


Paul L. Knox


London: Merrell, 2015

Hardcover. 304p. ISBN 978-1858946276. £35


Reviewed by Timothy Brittain-Catlin

University of Kent (Canterbury)


Where does one look for intelligent, capable writing about London as a whole? The architectural history professional will look first for a Survey of London volume, and if there is none available, for the ‘Pevsner’, the Buildings of England guide. The Survey of London was launched at the end of the nineteenth century to provide a very detailed account of all the buildings within a narrowly defined area: at first these were parishes, and some volumes specialised on groups of buildings. There is for example one which includes a survey of Downing Street from 1931, now a useful illustrated record of what was lost – nothing much of interest, in fact – when the complex was rebuilt by Raymond Erith at the end of the 1950s. For the most part these volumes move street by street, with details of the building contractors as well as of the landowners and architects, of costs and leases, a great richness of information which as far as I know has no equal in any other major city. But for all the long history of the series, large areas of London are still uncovered. There have been ups and downs in the series history, with some long intervals between publication. Andrew Saint, who had worked on the Survey before becoming Professor of Architecture at Cambridge in the mid-1980s, was brought back to revive it and production accordingly sped up; his team researched and wrote Woolwich, and Battersea in two volumes, and is currently completing South East Marylebone – that is, the area between Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, Marylebone High Street and the Marylebone Road, up to now a large hole in the Survey’s coverage. The survey was almost killed off once when the Greater London Council was abolished at the end of the 1980s, and then again when its subsequent patron English Heritage was reduced in size, the latter in part to pay for the overspend of the London 2012 Olympics. Then the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning at University College London stepped in to save it and appointed Saint its own Professor of Architecture; and it lives still, producing work to higher and higher academic, technical and graphic standards.

The second port of call is the ‘Pevsner’ series, now published by Yale University Press and largely funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Nikolaus Pevsner’s own two original volumes are usually referred to as London and London Except (that is, London except the Cities of London and Westminster, which were covered in the other book). These came out in the early 1950s and were revised in time first by Bridget Cherry, and then much expanded and reissued in six volumes under the current general editorship of Simon Bradley and Charles O’Brien. All Pevsner volumes follow the same format: a detailed list of churches, and then of other public buildings; a series of perambulations, to take in the feel of a place and to see the major buildings in it; and then some other references to streets and outlying buildings. A separate book by Bradley covers the London City Churches in a smaller format that matches that of the Pevsner City Guides: heavily illustrated, perambulator-friendly introductions to eleven major English cities. So for most practical purposes a professional architecture historian will look first at these. The least useful is the City of London because buildings there, mostly post-War, are rebuilt all the time; even the ‘Wren’ churches are, after all, in truth nearly all post-War themselves, new buildings by Walter Godfrey, Seely and Paget, Stephen Dykes Bower and others who are finally receiving the recognition that is due to them. This draws attention to the fact that real London is a different place from tourist London: by randomly Googling ‘St Bride’s, Fleet Street’, you are unlikely to discover that its mid-1950s interior is by Godfrey Allen and does not resemble Wren’s original version. Getting these things right is the test of a proper guide book.

So what is there to tell the general but informed reader about London as a whole? Surprisingly little. Although French and other European writers captured the spirit of the city in much topographical writing, especially in the early twentieth century, British writers have generally written about specific areas, or on a pan-London theme: one of the best books is John Summerson’s Georgian London of 1948, beautifully written and still in print, which tells the story of how the hereditary owners of the central London great estates – the Bedfords, the Portlands, and so on – developed their land from the late seventeenth century. From this one can learn the planning principles that still govern new houses further out. Merrell’s London Suburbs of 1999, edited by Julian Honer, is very good. From a different angle, Emily Cole’s Lived in London : Blue Plaques and the Stories behind them, published in 2009, visits the homes of famous residents, house by house, district by district; from this the readers themselves can extract a sense of the bigger city. Theme-based books with specific architectural information might perhaps include novels, such as those by Peter Ackroyd: The Great Fire of London and Hawksmoor; architectural historians generally cannot be bothered, however, with social histories of London, whatever the acclaim generally accorded to them, including Ackroyd’s own, or Roy Porter’s. There is a Phaidon book from 1996 called The Art and Architecture of London : An Illustrated Guide, by the architectural historian Ann Saunders. It is a perfectly reasonable introduction, and can quite safely be left in the hands of the young and impressionable: it passes the St Bride’s test but not the Downing Street one. It quite often appears as a set book on, for example, Master’s courses, but it does not convey any sense of variety and atmosphere; quite possibly the low-key graphic design has something to do with that. And twenty years is a very long time ago in the history of the changing face of London. Edward Jones and Christopher Woodward’s Guide to the Architecture of London is excellent, and regularly updated, but it is an illustrated reference book, pocket-width if not pocket-height, rather than a narrative. So how can the architecture of the city as a whole be captured in a realistic or representative way?

It is into this hiatus that Paul L. Knox’s book has stepped. Knox is an historian of cities, a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, the author of several academic books on the form and growth of cities. For that reason it is striking that he has written a book which is clearly intended to be accessible to everyone (and it is in British English, not just in spelling but in style). His approach is that London consists of different areas with definable but changing characters. And this is how the book is put together. At the start there is an introduction with a general commentary and interesting map extracts, but for the most part this is a picture book with lengthy descriptions of individual sites: that is, the chapters consist of three pages of text, followed by large images of buildings with 150-200-word captions.

The author’s approach is thus to convey the variety of the city by illustrating it effectively. The choice of buildings and the captions to them are well judged and follow a certain logical pattern. The famous buildings of the capital are illustrated with images of the same size as the others. Nowadays anyone with a smartphone can easily find more general views, a fact which is changing illustrated architectural history books for the better as the published photographs can now be much more specific to suit an editorial or authorial opinion. Knox’s buildings include, typically, the following: some representative housing from the nineteenth and twentieth century, both public and private; some commercial buildings including quaint pubs and large hotels, both exemplary and less so; plenty of shops; and some eccentricities of architectural note. The latter are indeed of genuine interest and include a striking image of the Elms Lester Painting Rooms in Flitcroft Street in the West End, a narrow building designed for a company that paints theatrical scenery, with a tall door that runs right the way up both its floors to the pediment above so that large pieces of stage scenery can be brought in. This conveys very well what is left of the character of Soho. The eccentricity for Lambeth is the former station of the Necropolis Railway Company adjacent to Waterloo, where coffins were once seen off in special trains to the company’s huge cemetery near Woking in Surrey. This photograph is larger than the one of the familiar Victory Arch that fronts Waterloo Station, and below these two there is an image of Denny Street in Kennington, part of the Duchy of Cornwall estate which built some most interesting housing in the early part of the twentieth century. There is a similar approach to other districts and it can thus be appreciated that the theme of variety is well conveyed. The photographs are almost all by Knox, and in spite of the fact that he has not used a tilt-shift lens, and so church and office towers recede or recline, they are very good. The colours are intense and lifelike, the details are sharp, the feeling, all round, is Londony.

This is a relatively judgmental book: the stories of controversial buildings are told fairly drily, with the reader able to draw their own conclusion. I noticed a slight tendency to provide within the captions the names of architects of ‘good’ buildings, but not for the ‘bad’ ones. An exception to the latter rule comes with the text of One Hyde Park, the huge – some would say monstrous – block of flats designed by Richard Rogers (or at any rate, by his practice, which in the course of its design became Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners). The reason for this naming and shaming is, in Knox’s words, that Rogers had been ‘the erstwhile champion of progressive urban planning and design’, but this building is ‘fortified and insulated from the rest of the city’. And indeed there is a peppering here of very large and very ugly buildings, for example, the ‘Strata’ tower in Elephant and Castle, the building that reminds many of an electric shaver, and which was, as Knox records, voted the ‘worst new building in the United Kingdom’, when it opened in 2010: the architects here are not named.

Knox does not like post-modernism, and this shows through. Many will agree with his judgment on the weird Minster Court in the City of London, designed in a strange shiny gothic style by the GMW Partnership and opened in 1990 ‘just as London’s fling with kitschy postmodernism was coming to an end’. But this is dangerous talk. The Twentieth Century Society, of which I am a trustee, has been trying to stop the continuing demolition of some very good postmodernist buildings, in particular the ones by Terry Farrell which have suffered badly recently. His office block in Queen Street in the City was recently demolished – you can still see it if you look at the bird’s eye view of Bing Maps, but not Google Maps – and the former bank building he designed at the corner of Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets is being mutilated by its current owners: the decorative panels have only just now been torn out, in spite of the architect’s own last-minute attempt to protect them. TV AM, the building with the swooping Las Vegas front and the blue and white stripy egg cups (‘iconic’, to use the annoying word in an appropriate way) at the rear, has gone; and the block known as Comyn Ching at Seven Dials, an extraordinary mixture of the new, old and remodelled, perhaps Farrell’s urbanist masterpiece, has now been mutilated at its southern prow. This last building is not in this book, and it should be; Farrell himself thinks that the only building of his that is likely to survive is Vauxhall Cross, the MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall, and this for the paradoxical reason that it is always being blown up in James Bond films; this has given it the resonance with the public that is needed so that a politician will think twice before overruling the advice of the national amenity societies or even of Historic England, the government’s own historic buildings agency.

These things do matter: public agencies will check the guide books to see whether a building is ‘important’ or not; that is the reason why Bradley and O’Brien’s new revised Pevsner guides have cut back some of the more acerbic comments from the original editions. Thus the splendid 2013 edition of the Pevsner for North East and East Kent, updated from the 1969 version by its original author John Newman, no longer describes my local former Baptist chapel of 1840 as ‘Ugly, tasteless and lifeless, but fun in a sick sort of way’, one of the most memorable comments in the entire series. For we look back now at the clumsy old neo-Norman chapel (if that is what it was supposed to be) with rather more affection than previously, and we do not want another old building in the town to go, especially since we were prosperous here in 1840 when the chapel was built, and much less so now, which means that new buildings are generally cheaper and nastier than the ones they replace.  A line written for knowing architectural connoisseurs will look different when read by a speculative developer. Thus it does matter that Knox lays into James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry, a building which is currently the subject of a campaign for its protection, quoting the left-wing critic who called it a ‘screamingly City-Boy building, aggressive and bumptious’. That’s not because it is untrue: it is a witness to the mid-Thatcher government era that was exactly that, and that is  the reason why it is an important monument. It is also worth saying here that the postmodernists intended to celebrate the diversity of the city, and since this appears to be Knox’s aim too he should not, perhaps, be against them, and apparently only them, on principle and with such vehemence.

With these caveats in mind, this is a very reasonable attempt at capturing the city; all but the most learned will find something new and interesting in it.


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