A new book by Neal Shasore offers a fascinating insight into the evolution of the profession, writes Matthew Wickens


This book is the product of a decade of rumination on the author’s own PhD thesis and the themes and ideas therein, which now appear to have gained a new and unexpected currency. 

At first glance it is a history of a period where upper and upper-middle class white men were concerned with how to make London an appropriate imperial capital. This at a time when, in spite of, or perhaps, because of the Great War, the British Empire looked as though it might last forever. 

It might not sound like a book that would have much to tell us about architecture today. But Neal Shasore weaves an intriguing and beguiling narrative through a period that I suspect few current architecture students will ever have received more than a single lecture on.

As the author himself notes, “These are not buildings or personalities with which it has been easy to empathise, and I hope that this book is not read as a defence or an apology. It is intended as a dispassionate analysis of the rhetorics of modern architectural professionalism.”

We learn of the battles that preceded the passing of the Architects Registration Act in 1931

Parallels with the contemporary architectural scene abound, and quite how little we’ve moved from the milieu presented should probably concern us all. Recent events have thrown into question the obligations the architectural profession has to its ‘publics’, and the author notes that grappling with the material has informed his own teaching practice profoundly.

We learn of the battles that preceded the passing of the Architects Registration Act in 1931, and associations since subsumed such as the Association of Assistant Surveyors, Technologists and Architects (AASTA) who claimed to represent 60-70 percent of the profession in salaried employ – perhaps the predecessors to UVW-SAW, the recently-formed member-led trade union for architectural workers in the U.K.

The book is ostensibly organised thematically, but also reads chronologically: the first chapter starts in the 1920s, and the last ends in the 1940s. The author has entitled each chapter with a keyword, intended to jolt the reader, particularly those familiar with the period, out of some prevailing clichés and stereotypes.

The phrase ‘Art Deco’ is jettisoned in this book, along with ‘Streamline’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Medieval Modernism’, and ‘Baroque’. Instead, each keyword is associated with a different aspect of ‘the public’, and we therefore have chapters entitled Propaganda; Slump; Machine-Craft; Vigilance; Manners; and finally the Architectural Mind. 

There is a lot to digest in this dense 400-plus page, but eminently readable book

A cast of characters, who may be known to the reader under different guises, are re-examined in a new light. Lawrence Weaver, probably best known as the author of Country Life’s Houses & Gardens by E. L. Lutyens in 1913, is here shown in his role organising the British Empire Exhibition of 1924.

And A. Trystan Edwards, known to this writer as the author of Good & Bad Manners in Architecture, a treatise about the art of civic design (surprisingly referenced by the Catalan architect Josep Llinás in a 2006 issue of El Croquis), is here shown promoting the idea of Low-Rise High Density Housing decades before it became common parlance.

Some may recall the book Battle of Styles: A Guide to Selected Buildings in London of the 1914-39 Period – published by the RIBA London Region in 1975 as a contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year – as the basis on which to start listing buildings of this period in the capital. With nearly 50 years hindsight, Shasore’s book may now be the publication that fully fleshes out all of the competing, and overlapping issues of the time, beyond the oft repeated ‘battle of the styles’.

There is a lot to digest in this dense 400-plus page, but eminently readable book. As one would expect from these publishers, it is academic but not offputtingly so, although I might suggest consuming it in manageable chunks.

The richness of content and rigour of presentation lends itself to serialisation, perhaps on television? BBC Four surely needs a new recherché documentary presented by Shasore, walking à la Simon Schama through contemporary street scenes, evoking the recent past.

Or, perhaps the pages of BD? Either would work well to bring this information to a much wider audience, and enable an expansion of the re-examination of this key period that Shasore has so successfully fleshed out in all its nuance and intricacies. The issues raised feel both from another century, and disconcertingly pertinent to the present day, in equal measure.