The Best of British Architecture; the Shock of the Old - A Guide to British Buildings . by Philip Wilkinson ( Channel 4 Books, Pounds 20) A Guide to the Architecture of London. by Edward Jones & Christopher Woodward (Seven Dials, Pounds 14.99). Reviewed by Ross Reyburn
Reyburn, Ros, The Birmingham Post (England)
Coventry Cathedral may have been voted Britain's most popular 20th century building, but writer Philip Wilkinson judges architect Sir Basil Spence's creation as 'an uneasy compromise between ancient and modern idioms'.
His muted verdict comes in The Shock of the Old - A Guide to British Buildings , an intriguing publication reminding the world that revered traditional buildings such as Norman cathedrals, Palladian mansions and Victorian railway stations were regarded as outlandish in their time.
Built after German bombing destroyed the city's medieval cathedral, Coventry Cathedral has certainly had the impact of a great building since its consecration in 1962 and this is reflected by the large numbers of visitors from all over the world. The impact of the ingenious way the ruins of the devastated medieval church link to the new cathedral is somewhat marred by the jarring exterior design of Spence's creation with its saw-tooth walls. But the cathedral's beautiful interior chapels and status as a showpiece for 20th century art compensate for this disappointment.
'Work began in 1956, and architect Basil Spence went for a free, modern interpretation of the Gothic idiom,' writes Wilkinson.
'He seems to have been determined to create an impression of lightness. The slender columns of the nave taper down to rest on small bronze pins. Spence originally planned to balance the columns on glass balls, but the manufacturers would not guarantee them for 1,000 years. Even without them, the impression is one of magical lightness.'
'The modern building is full of notable works of art, the sort of striking images that medieval churchmen loved.'
Surprisingly Wilkinson doesn't mention Sir Jacob Epstein's memorable St Michael & Lucifer sculpture on the exterior wall. But he praises John Piper's colourful Creation window, the curtain-like west wall of clear glass beautifully etched with John Hutton's ghost-like saints and angels, and Graham Sutherland's 'striking if somewhat gloomy' Christ in Glory tapestry.
Despite the praise, Wilkinson's final verdict has an air of disappointment: 'Its architect is making a valiant attempt to interpret the ancient style for his own times, but there is no real progression, and little of the structural daring of Gothic - in spite of the tapering columns. It is as if the cathedral was driven more by the need to rebuild Britain after the war than by the faith that inspired the creators of its ancient ancestors.'
Architect Piers Gough, the presenter of the Channel 4 television series timed to coincide with the book, holds the view: 'Modern architecture in Britain is so unchallenging - driven by committee. We have lost our faith in each other. Like overcooked vegetables, the buildings are all right, they keep you alive, but they just lack something.'
Certainly the array of modern buildings pictured in the book fall some way behind matching the grandeur and impact of the best of the past. But the camera can lie and as a celebration of British architecture, visually the book is a little disappointing. Many of the photographs in both scale and quality don't do full justice to some outstanding architecture. …