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adventures in architecture Posts

A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land (2020)

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 …

Metro-land
modernism-in-metroland.co.uk

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 …

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Clay Lane Water Treatment Works, Bushey

On a visit to Reveley Lodge gardens I drove by this fantastic modernist structure on Clay Lane in Bushey and had to double-back for another look. Officially called the Three Valleys Water treatment works, the site is owned by Affinity Water and also houses its education centre.

The structure resembles an art deco swimming pool from the outside, but a web search yields next to nothing about its history, or any interior images. If you know more, please get in touch ….

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The Archaeology of Buildings by Richard K. Morriss (2000)

A few years ago some web searches on reading a building/vernacular architecture suggested The Archaeology of Buildings by Richard K. Morriss as a key title. The book’s long been out of print, and every time it cropped up second-hand it was prohibitively expensive. Over the summer I finally managed to snap-up a copy at a reasonable price.

Fans of Time Time may remember Mr Morriss as one of the experts brought in to advise on buildings’ histories. The book introduces ‘buildings archaeology’ as a distinct branch of archaeology, and gives some of the background as to why this has been controversial in the archaeological community.

This is not a chronological, period-by-period take on architectural history. Instead the chapters explores the materials and methods used in the construction of each essential parts of any building: walls, roofs, floors. The emphasis is on the development of British, principally English, vernacular architecture, and why building styles and approaches changed in response to economics, changes in buildings’ uses, and the raw materials available.

The section on brickwork was particularly interesting. The author explains the development of brick sizes, the difference between bonds and how bond popularity changed. He also stresses that the front wall of a building is frequently not indicative of what is behind it, with lower-quality materials often used behind a more impressive brick or ashlar fa├žade.

The sections on how to draw plans and evaluations are particularly detailed, with an emphasis on best-practice surveying techniques, eg how to use triangulation to establish accurate distances between points when recording a building.

The chapter on using digital technology is pretty out-of-date now, but Mr Morriss understands the pace that digital record-keeping, storage, formats etc. mores, are that hardware and software recommendations are unlikely to be future-proof. Good record-keeping practice is suggested, rather than individual technologies.

Despite the depth of detail, the tone is never lecturing, with the author keen to advise on best-practice, though with a sensible flexibility for different types and sizes of project: there are things you must do, but feel free to present or deliver them in a format that work’s best for the audience/client.

Not being fluent in all of the vocabulary, I found myself wanting more illustrations to visualise specific architectural details, though a book like this can’t be expected to provide photos or diagrams for every description. As you can see from the pics above, all the diagrams and most other photos are black-and-white, with a central section of coloured plates.

A book for anyone that wants a good introduction into how to read vernacular architecture and translate that knowledge into a written report.

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