May 15, 2022
From clubs and pubs to aristocratic follies, from an Indian theatre to a Cuban ice-cream parlour, this creative book is a hymn to the gay-friendly buildings treasured by film-makers, artists and activists
Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire is one of the great lost wonders of British architecture, a neo-gothic giant with cathedral-sized interiors, built from 1796 to 1813, whose 90-metre tower collapsed and was rebuilt several times. It fell for the last time in 1825, since when the rest of the building has all but disappeared.
It also takes its place in Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories, alongside clubs, bars, railway carriages, bookshops, community centres, public parks, private houses and a Castro-era ice-cream parlour in Havana. Fonthill Abbey was built for his own use by an exceptionally wealthy man, William Beckford, whose prospective career in public life was ended when he was outed as a “sodomite”. He “consoled his unhappiness”, as the book puts it, by building his fantastical house, where he longed “for a ‘beatific vision’ in which a beautiful angelic youth would come forth from the heavens to embrace him with love and understanding”. As conspicuous as it was, its main purpose was to shelter him from a hostile world, creating instead a private internal universe of mirrors, stained glass, “lustrous multicoloured objets d’art” and carefully framed views out to the surrounding landscape. Continue reading...
Apr 18, 2022
His work helped define the grand style of Soviet buildings, but was Boris Iofan a stooge, a propagandist or a victim of circumstance? His story makes for fascinating reading
In March 1976, when doing the rounds of the Barvikha sanatorium outside Moscow, a doctor found the once-celebrated architect Boris Iofan unconscious in his armchair. He was holding a drawing of a statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman by Vera Mukhina, that had surmounted Iofan’s most famous built work, the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. He had been working up proposals, obsessively perhaps, for a less ignominious setting than the one where this sculpture had ended up, on an undersized plinth in a Moscow exhibition ground.
It was amazing that Iofan was still (just) alive. Born to a Jewish family in Odesa in 1891, he lived through pogroms, revolutions, world wars and times of famine. As the architect of Stalin’s most prominent projects, he spent years close to the murderous and capricious dictator. Those around him – patrons, friends, colleagues, associates, fellow members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee – were murdered in large numbers, sometimes after torture. Iofan not only survived, but also created some of the most memorable designs of 20th-century architecture. Continue reading...
Apr 03, 2022
From a radar station in Fleetwood to the BBC’s Cardiff studios, Owen Hatherley’s generous survey of modernist architecture is insightful and surprising
If you hadn’t heard of Coleg Harlech in Wales, an adult education college whose endangered brutalist structures are “probably the most sheerly convincing 20th-century buildings in the entire country”, don’t worry. You are not alone. And it is precisely because works like this are obscure that Modern Buildings in Britain had to be written. For one of its strengths is the devotion and persistence with which Owen Hatherley has sought out gems across the country: a radar station in Fleetwood, an experimental plastic classroom in Preston, the magical Pannier Market in Plymouth, the modest 1950s Edgbaston offices of the Engineering & Allied Employers’ Federation.
These take their place alongside more famous works – the National Theatre and the Lloyd’s building in London, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh – in a century-plus sweep that goes back to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, built from 1897 to 1909, and extends to recent designs by 6a Architects, Amin Taha and Assemble. What emerges from this 600-page breeze block of book is a sense of colossal achievement, by the many architects and builders who made such a diverse, inventive and powerful array of buildings. It demonstrates that modern architecture in Britain, often controversial and demonised, is a substantial, irremovable and remarkable part of the national story. Continue reading...
May 24, 2021
Barnabas Calder’s engaging study of construction and its environmental impact is at its best when it doesn’t dwell on ancient masterpieces
Consider the Georgian terrace, now a widely admired model of traditional city-building. Its most important material was not those of which it was ostensibly made, but coal: coal fired the kilns that made the bricks and the lime for the mortar; it helped make the glass for the large windows; it smelted and melted the iron for the railings and nails. It was burned in the fireplaces whose serried chimneys rose above the roofline, and was stored in the coal holes beneath the pavement, which were studded with the circular metal plates through which the fuel was poured.
Without coal, these houses would have required impossible acreages of forest to supply the timber to generate the heat to manufacture these products. From the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, reports Barnabas Calder, pig iron production in Britain rose by a factor of about 65, which without coal would have required an area of woodland almost the size of England. Continue reading...
May 16, 2021
This account of the ‘Preston model’, the Lancashire city’s bold wealth-building scheme whose champions include Labour’s John McDonnell, fails to address to what degree it works
We’d all like to believe in Preston. The Labour-led Lancashire city has, over the last decade, been pioneering its own version of community wealth-building, a concept described as both “guerrilla localism” and “extreme common sense”. What it means, at its simplest, is that money spent in a city by “anchor institutions” – hospitals, universities, housing associations, the council – as much as possible stays in the city. Contracts for catering or construction, rather than going to faceless London-based or international corporations, go to local businesses.
Rather than go to remote shareholders, cashflow and profits stay in the immediate area, not only giving economic benefits to citizens, but also involvement in and ownership of local decision-making. Residents can “take back control” – not in the ersatz sense offered by Brexit slogans, but in concrete and practical ways. In what might have been a classic “red wall” area – an old industrial town where voters feel let down by successive governments – the Labour vote has held up, including in the recent local elections.
There’s a shortage of voices from satisfied citizens, as opposed to the businesses most likely to approve of the model Continue reading...
Nov 09, 2020
Life as the lover of the restless US architect Louis Kahn was fulfilling – but never easy
Not again,” said the great American architect Louis Kahn, when his lover Harriet Pattison told him she was pregnant. He’d had another lover, Anne Tyng, who had had a daughter with him eight years before. It is one of the lines in Pattison’s book that stings. Another comes when she finds that his wife Esther, who was relatively prosperous, was helping to support the precarious finances of Kahn’s studio. It meant that Pattison’s hope that he would leave his wife for her was pushed into a remote and, as it turned out, never achieved future.
Yet Our Days Are Like full Years is not a bitter or angry book. It is a memoir of their times together, moving and heroic (on her part) as well as troubling, built around the letters he sent to her, which she has kept in a Chinese cinnabar box ever since he died in 1974. Their relationship lasted 15 years – “a small portion of time in most lives, and yet measureless in intensity and effect in ours”. Like much of her life, she says, the letters “were unexamined, put off for a later time. But it is a later time now, for I am past 90.” Continue reading...
Sep 06, 2020
This persuasive study argues that northern Europe’s greatest gothic buildings are deeply indebted to the Arab world
In 2019, a survey asked 3,624 Americans if Arabic numerals should be taught in school. An affronted 56% – and 72% of Republican respondents – said no. Only 29% said yes. The nos didn’t seem to know that Arabic numerals are the things they type with the keypads of their phones.
Something similar has happened with architecture. You can read titans of art history such as Kenneth Clark or Nikolaus Pevsner, who took upon themselves the task of defining European civilisation, and barely find a mention of the Great Mosque of Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada – extraordinary and important works of architecture that are unarguably located in Europe. It’s a breathtaking omission. Continue reading...
Apr 19, 2020
To live better we need to see food as more than a commodity, argues the author of Hungry City in this ambitious ‘all-you-can-eat buffet of thoughts’
In the opening passages of Sitopia, Carolyn Steel talks about the “Google Burger”, a €250,000 (£218,000) prototype piece of cultured meat, grown in a laboratory from bovine stem cells, with backing from, among others, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin. This technology may, as George Monbiot has recently argued, help to save the world, but Steel is sceptical. She mistrusts the urge to find a technical fix, especially one that would put tech giants in charge of the world’s diets. Wouldn’t it be easier, she asks, if we just ate more vegetables?
To which the answer is both yes and no. Eating more vegetables is not difficult. The hard part is silencing all those cravings – biological, cultural, psychological – that urge people to eat a lot of meat. The still harder part, once some virtuous souls have disciplined themselves away from animal products, is to persuade billions of other people, for many of whom plentiful meat is a newlydiscovered and hard-earned luxury, to do the same. Continue reading...