24 OCTOBER 1958, Page 11


Honky-Tonk and Darwin's Theory

J. ROBINSON By KENNETH ARn. you embarrassed by your bathroom? Or, to put it another way, is it all in the same room in your house? If so, you'll be pleased to know that your deli- cate problem has been solved in America. Advertisements are offering 'a ballerina cover made of frilly white nylon net and surmounted by an exquisite removable red rose.' Such a simple idea, but it took an American to think it out. There's . a lot to be said for living in a really progressive country. But there is also a price to pay. Just imagine what it's like to be bombarded with magazine suggestions that your home needs a 'bathroom caddy,' a 'snack bucket' or a 'dog wick.' And there is always the tempting invita- tion to liven up your living-room for a mere eighteen dollars. For that sum the American householder can buy 'a complete package with everything that is needed • to make the furniture vibrate.' This is very nice, as someone has doubt- less said, if your dining-room suite is no great shakes. But what is it for: massage or masochism? The implications are not quite nice. Nor are those in the ads for a tiled version of Dilrer's 'Praying Hands.' These are offered to a God-fearing nation for 'artful wall decoration.' William Graham please note.

I dredged up all this information during a re- cent session with back numbers of the American glossies-7a chore that usually leaves me with a pleasant it-can't-happen-here sensation. But this time I came across a couple of items that made me rather wistful. One was a report about a 'popular demand for more decorativeness and romance' in architecture. The other was an article about Americans being • intimidated by some of their new buildings. 1 most explain this last point. It seems that shell-roof construction is becoming THE SPECTATOR, OCTOBER 24, more. and more popular in the States. As the tech lique of building these paper-thin reinforced- Concrete shells improves, the roofs are used to Cover. much wider spans. The result sounds n.ing. When people go into shell-roofed buildings they are worried by the absence of ver- tical supports, lose their sense of scale and acquire Lk feeling of inadequacy. So architects are turning into Psychologists and are busy thinking up ways of restoring lost feelings of security. There's no need (more's the pity) to worry about this problem in Britain. Nor can we claim a Pupular demand for decoration on buildings, though many other countries have already dis- uve red what Douglas Haskell, the editor of America's Architectural Forum, calls 'the new b - aroque.' This 'new surge' that he writes about has tothing to do with the sort of decoration we can't get rid of in this country—the nailed-on VYwood oak beam and the mock-classical facade.

- scems to reflect a genuine senie of fun in thearchitect's approach to his job—a wish to thlak = buildings enjoyable to move about in. So Sr it has been expressed in America (mainly in Scho 31s, factories and public buildings) in many difte-ent Ways—by means of `romantic' shapes, d- ecoratively pierced screens, ornamental pools or Nuibling walks in outdoor courts. And in a new educational building for Detroit even the pre- d fabricated structural supports are to be cast in a e wrative form. (Collapse of elderly purists.) suPpose we have only one good example in thIS xtuntry of sophisticated architectural honky- toak, and that is the Royal Festival Hall. This ' surely has what Mr. Haskell would call a 'non- Patronising popular appeal,' with its solid audi- 1,.tito floating in a glass envelope. Otherwise, we cIvCflt really started to build for enjoyment. It's not that we can't afford trimmings. In fact, we shit waste a lot of money on the sort of trim- ling that are meant to add 'dignity' to architec- ture. f was amused. to read in Faber's newly l'ahl shed child's guide to building* that earlier in "'is century 'architects hid steel framework untie r a mass of masonry' and 'decorated in the :a3hionable Classic or Gothic manner.' If the nur- e rY schools of Kensington would care to take tEleir „ crocodiles round to the site of the borough's “elv Public library they will see there a live o-


t ple of early twentieth-century building in the 11t Se of construction. Hanging on the side of 'Led frame is an enormous wooden mock-up


the main portico—presumably stuck there to giVC rent..Lhe architect, Edward Maufe, an idea of the 1 iired scale for his classical mouldings. It looks lerri set hlY modern if you think of it as a skeletal pia,., for a colonial-mansioned, Tennessee Williams but it is, in fact, a rusting, weather-beaten Z111111201 of the pathetic way our public buildings g to an undistinguished past. I3eaind our undistinguished past there is, of 'ours e, the distinguished past it tried to copy, and -"v of this is quite nicely recorded in a book ' Jost been reading.t This book almost ignores the twentieth century : it has only three pictures Nst-war designs. Why? The answer is implied in a fuu:author's suggestion that 'whoever compiles num book of this sort some one or two


hek • ntlen. (Faber, 8s. 6d.) • avis PICTURE HISTORY OF FURNITURE. By Frank (Hulton, 35s.) C/IIR BOOK OF ARCHITECTURE. By Agnes and hundred years hence will be able to devote some very pleasant pages of illustrations to outstanding pieces of the mid-twentieth century which will stand comparison with the classic masterpieces of the eighteenth.' In other words, you must wait for a modern design to be an antique before you can compare it with older antiques.

I don't think the author would have dodged the twentieth century quite so nervously if he had seen the current exhibition, `A Room of Our Own,' by the seven schools of the Royal College of Art. My first impression of this display at the Tea Centre—after I had recovered from the surprise of Lady Casson's pleasant, blue- horizoned, N. C. Hunter-ish setting—was that here was a room furnished by someone who would normally buy only antique furniture. The writing table is a writing table, not a typing desk. The furniture, the carpets, the glassware, the pottery, the chief decoration gimmick (brass and poured plastic inlaid in Brazilian rosewood) have a character that cannot be described—as some modern British designs are described—as insipid mock-Scandinavian. Nearly everything is richly evocative of British tradition in design and crafts- manship. And the principal of the College, Robin Darwin, would agree with this description. It is Darwin's theory that students should not monkey about with international idioms, but should 'find better means to do ordinary things in our own native way.'

Some critics have said that the exhibition pro- totypes are middle-aged in conception and out of touch with reality, and that they have snob- appeal. It. is probably true to say that no angry young man would hire-purchase a grogged-clay barbecue for his orangery. And only the truly zany would see the subtlety of having a leather- bound television set (to pick up the infrequencies of the all-leather Goon Show?). But not all these designs are fabulously expensive one-offs, to be obtained only by special order. The most en- couraging thing about the exhibition is not only that most of the prototypes were sponsored by manufacturers, but that many of them are going on to the' market. Perhaps the noisier critics will feel more comfortable when these products have left the lush elegance of the College devotee's centre and have turned up down the road in the more familiar setting of the shop window.