Britain’s Lost Cities – Gavin Stamp

This has to be the most depressing yet fascinating books I have read in a long time. Gavin Stamp was an architectural historian and for many years was president of the Twentieth Century Society, sadly he died in 2017 aged just 69. He wrote many books and hundreds of articles on architecture including almost forty years as a columnist for Private Eye under the pseudonym of Piloti and was for a time professor of architectural history at The Mackintosh School of Architecture, part of the Glasgow School of Art. As you can tell from the brief biography he was an expert in his field and despite his long time association with the Twentieth Century Society this book is excoriating about the wanton vandalism to major cities undertaken by city planners in the 1930’s to 1970’s. The book looks at nineteen cities in England and Scotland and with the assistance of old photographs shows some of what has been lost including the Lion Brewery which features on the cover and which stood on the south bank of the Thames in London and survived WWII only to be pulled down in 1948 to make way for the Royal Festival Hall.

I assumed, like probably most people in Britain, that most of the soulless centres to British cities were down to thoughtless rebuilding plans after the Luftwaffe bombing runs of WWII done in the years of austerity following the war. But this book makes it clear that at least for some of the cities the destruction of ancient thoroughfares and the buildings that made them often happened long before the bombers made razing what was left so convenient for the planners involved. I have travelled over large parts of Europe and seen the wonderful rebuilding of old cities, often reconstructing the lost or damaged buildings from before the war not the awful mediocrity of Britain’s reconstruction forcing inappropriate new ring roads through what was largely repairable, or even worse undamaged, buildings. The page shown above dealing with Coventry includes one of the most damning quotations from a city planner.

We used to watch from the roof to see which buildings were blazing and then dash downstairs to check how much easier it would be to put our plans into action.

Donald Gibson, City Architect for Coventry from 1938

The photograph of Bull Street in Birmingham at the top of the page reproduced above is amazing as every building shown in the picture no longer exists. I chose to illustrate this blog with Coventry and Birmingham as those are the cities I know best but I have to say that the pictures in the book for these Midlands industrial centres are completely unrecognisable. Quite what St George in the Fields church in Hockley (one of the northern districts of central Birmingham) had done to offend the local planners before its demolition in 1960 I don’t know but it looks a fine large building with an important history and where it stood is now just an open parkland so it clearly wasn’t in the way of some grand design. According to Wikipedia it had a capacity of almost two thousand people so it was a substantial church apparently needlessly lost.

Birmingham had its heart ripped out in the 1950’s and 60’s to make way for the car with underpasses and flyovers running right through the centre with little thought for pedestrians and is now undergoing further massive rebuilding largely removing structures thrown up sixty years ago. It’s too late sadly to restore the city centre but what is going up now does seem to be an improvement on what was done in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sorry about the wobbly images of the inside pages, trying to photograph these whilst holding the book open without breaking the spine really called for at least three hands, possibly four which is definitely more than I have available at the time. The copy I have is the 2010 first softback edition, the book was originally published in 2007 as a hardback, both versions are by Aurum Press which is now a division of The Quarto Group. I also have the first hardback edition of his follow up book Lost Victorian Britain, sadly both of these books are now out of print.

Gaudi The Complete Works – Rainer Zerbst

There are very few architects where one glance at a building is enough to tell you that they were involved. Probably the most distinctive of this small group is the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi i Cornet, whose masterwork, the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona is still under construction 137 years after he took over the project and 94 years after he died. It is hoped that the six huge steeples will be completed in time for the centenary of his death and when I last saw it earlier this year that certainly looked like a possibility as they had risen considerably since my previous visit. The double page spread below is looking straight up at the ceiling of this truly remarkable building.

Published by the German art publisher Tashen there are two versions of this book, both in hardback. Mine is the larger one at 25 x 34 cm with 368 pages and weighing 2.91 kg, there is also the much smaller 40th anniversary edition which is 15.6 x 21.7 cm and almost half the weight at 1.47 kg. The number of pages in the smaller edition is higher, presumably to get all the text in at a readable size, because although this is a wonderful book of full page images there is also a lot of text providing a good length biography and extensive notes about each featured building. Part of the reason for the weight of my copy is the use of very high quality paper which is a hallmark of Taschen’s publications. I also feel that to do justice to Gaudi’s remarkable structures you need as large an image as is practicable so would very much recommend this version, which costs £40 rather than the 40th anniversary edition which is half the price but not as impressive a volume.

The book is split into three sections and the pages are colour coded within these parts. Initially there is an introduction which along with the historical summary also provides short essays on significant projects. This part is on ‘normal’ white background pages with black text. Following this comes the main body of the book with in depth analysis of sixteen buildings, or groups of buildings in the case of Güell Park, which each get between fifteen and twenty pages dedicated to them. These parts each have an initial page on gold paper with black text followed by black paper with white text. The final section summarises Gaudi’s complete works with each piece from furniture to the less important buildings briefly discussed and printed on gold paper with black writing. This part also includes a short biography and pages of photo credits.

The mixing up of the coloured pages sounds like it could be a mess of a book but in reality it is beautifully designed and certainly has a wow factor from the moment you first open it. When I showed it to a friend of mine that runs a bookshop she ordered a copy for herself that morning it has that sort of impact. I was given it for my birthday, in June, and have only just finished reading it. Not only are there so many fantastic images to look at but there is a large amount of text to provide a lot of information about Gaudi and his works. The book really does live up to it’s subtitle of The Complete Works and is surprisingly readable despite the level of detail that it goes into.

I first started specifically buying books by Taschen, rather than just picking up random titles as and when they caught my eye, when they began a series called Taschen’s World Architecture in the the 1990’s. This was intended to be a forty volume set exploring everything from ancient Egypt and Greece through to the modern age and genuinely trying to cover the world rather than just a Euro-centric view. Unfortunately it clearly wasn’t successful, some of the planned volumes were obviously going to have a limited readership, which is probably why 250 page high production value books at a sensible price had not come out before. In the end only twelve of the projected volumes were actually produced and the last couple tended to be found mainly in discount retailers as they were remaindered, which made tracking them down to complete what I could rather difficult. I will review these excellent books in a blog entry sometime next year

Despite the failure of that series, architecture is still a mainstay of Taschen’s publishing output and I hope that reading this blog has perhaps whetted your appetite to seek out some of their beautiful books. Even if you don’t have a major interest in architecture then they are still really interesting and gorgeous to look at. But be aware they are not for bedtime reading, they tend to be large and heavy, the next Taschen publication I intend to cover on this blog clocks in at a massive 7.56kg and will highlight another branch of their output. Until then enjoy the images I have selected here and maybe get a copy yourself.

List of images selected for this blog:

  • Cover – Detail from Güell Palace
  • The ceiling from the aisle of Sagrada Familia
  • Top of the tower at El Capricho near Santander
  • Güell Palace – interior view, Gaudi would not only design the physical structure but also the fixtures and fittings inside to continue his design throughout the building
  • Bodegas Güell – this astonishing triangular cross-section building is the wine cellars for the Güell family
  • Park Güell – view from the terrace looking back at the entrance gates and buildings
  • Casa Batlló – One of the staircases
  • Gold page below – Casa Pere Santalo, in this case Gaudi renovated the facade rather than designed the building but still made it distinctively his own