I first discovered Joshua Abbott’s photos of modernist architecture via his Instagram page. His new book is a small but full-colour selective directory of modernist cinemas, factories, Tube stations, private houses and other structures largely built in the first part of the 20th century in the suburbs that sprung up with the development of the Metropolitan Railway.
The best of this type of short guide aren’t designed to be comprehensive, instead reflecting what the author sees as salient, and are all the better for it. Though I did find myself jumping straight to the Hertfordshire chapter to see whether buildings I’m familiar with had made the cut: the Odham’s building and the Ovaltine factory are there, though how long the unlovable Sun Printers clock tower will be around judging by its current crumbling state I’m not sure. The descriptions often tell me something I didn’t know, though I’d have liked more detail on their architectural quirks, though I expect the copy had to be kept short for reasons of length (the book is published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher).
What’s more interesting of course are the local buildings you aren’t aware of. I didn’t know about the Peter and Alison Smithson-designed Sugden House in Watford (which at its last sale appeared to have retained its original interior) or a couple of other private dwellings in Bushey, an area more significant architecturally for its surviving arts and craft houses.
The author also notes that he hasn’t included buildings that can’t be viewed from the street. What else is out there, hidden from sight, behind those thick walls of conifers down gated private roads?
The book’s introduction casts metro-land as more of an idea than a place, referencing John Betjeman’s famous 1973 documentary, where architects like Charles Holden (underground stations) and Curtis and Burchett (Middlesex schools) had space to invent their own futures amongst the wistful avenues of mock-Tudor semis and prefabs.
A book like this is also intended to be a pocket tour guide, so organising chapters by London borough (with the Met line’s outer-reaches of Herts and Bucks tagged on) works – a map is included at the start of each.
Might it have been done in another way? I’d have liked to know more about the key architects, with more insight into the way their own backgrounds and personalities influenced their styles, though concentrating on fewer names would have come at the expense of eclecticism and is a different book, perhaps. It might also have been fun to order the chapters as stops or sections along different tube lines – I wonder if that’s something the author considered …
PS – reading up more about Peter and Alison Smithson I came across this film about them from 1970. Something tells me the took their work seriously …