19 AUGUST 1989, Page 24



Annabel Ricketts


Chatto, f4.99, pp. 106


Chatto, f4.99, pp. 115

SHOP FRONTS by Alan Powers

Chatto, f4.99, pp. 119

The first three volumes of Chatto's new series, 'Curiosities of the British Street', were published just as many of us were forcibly extending our acquaintance with our squalid streets, courtesy of British Rail. They are exactly what is needed to provide new ,interest, a kind of up-market I-Spy. Do you, for instance, know the K2 from the K6 telephone box? Or how about a quick diversion to a drinking fountain (though probably cemented up), or in dire circumstances a horse trough? A new one was provided in Hyde Park in 1988 to commemorate the horses killed by the IRA bomb.

The strength of this series is that it manages to be both informative and enter- taining. All three books are written by architectural historians who wear their knowledge lightly, and the large number of illustrations, with useful and amusing cap- tions, ensures that niceties of evolution never become tedious. More volumes are planned, and although the manhole covers mentioned on the back of the books have yet to find an author, subjects in the pipeline include pillar boxes and fanlights.

Gavin Stamp's look at telephone boxes is particularly poignant, charting in minia- ture the decline of British design stan- dards. But it would be unfair to see the book as just a depressing catalogue, since it is full of fascinating snippets of informa- tion. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, for instance, intended his telephone boxes to be silver with 'greenish-blue' interiors; and the ill- fated concrete K3, although common in Portugal, can only be found in London beside the parrots at the Zoo. But the real value of this book lies in the author's passionate concern for design. As well as drawing attention to the seemingly lost art of siting the boxes, he provides us with a clear rationalisation of the strengths of Scott versus the mindless ugliness of Brit- ish Telecom or the glossy pretentiousness of Mercury. Surely Prince Charles, for all his love of modern classicism, cannot support Simpson's Disney-world doric, which would be more at home in a scene from Masters of the Universe.

Philip Davies draws attention to the eccentric, idiosyncratic and sometimes pompous structures which resulted from the 19th-century struggle to provide a public supply of water for animals and humans alike. Particularly fascinating is the wide range of decorative themes: as well as the ubiquitous Women of Samaria and Temperances, the illustrations include crocodiles, winged dragons, maharajahs' pavilions, Boer War soldiers and even a worried cherub unsteadily paddling on a jug. Davies also gives us glimpses of typically 19th-century preoccupations. For instance, Lady Hamilton designed a jet system for fountains because it was thought unseemly for water to flow from the mouths of animals. Happily, bronze lion's- head spouts are again being made from the original casts.

Shop fronts is a large subject and Alan Powers sensibly limits himself to single- unit retail shops. However, although he aims to consider the architectural design of the shop front rather than merely making a record of picturesque survivals, the illus- trations do seem to make up a scrapbook of curiosities, largely because there are so few innovative modern designs. Whereas between the wars shop fronts were de- signed by big names (Erno Goldfinger, Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry, for example) there are no post-war examples by architects. Commercialism has ruled and the shop has become little more than an aluminium box with a crudely designed Illuminated sign. The general decline is encapsulated in the depressing series of photographs of W. H. Smith in High Holborn which show the original, carefully designed front (Eric Gill lettering, art nouveau detail, splendid central lantern) being gradually reduced to a philistine nonentity. Smith's have restored their shop in Newton, Powys, to its original glory, but since the company reports a far lower turnover there than would be expected from a 'modern' shop it is an experiment which is extremely unlikely to be repeated.

But restoration is not really the point. Why can we not have modern, well- designed objects in the streets that we can admire and enjoy? Among all the charm- ing and eccentric curiosities shown, each book contains the same message: present- day street furniture is either a selfconscious parody of the past (Heritage Twee) or the ugly and squalid non-functional. Perhaps this series will focus attention where it is much needed.