Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 31, 2014
Kathryn A. Morrison and John Minnis Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2012. 448 pp.; 225 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300187045)
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In 1943, the English architect, landscape architect, and town planner Geoffrey Jellicoe designed an exhibition for the British Road Federation (BRF) called Motorways for Britain. Jellicoe included photographs of motorways superimposed on different types of English landscape, showing thousands of miles of roadways “designed to harmonise with typical British scenery,” as described by Kathryn A. Morrison and John Minnis, authors of the lavishly illustrated and thoroughly researched Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England. They go on to say that a year later the BRF published New Roads for Britain: A Plan for the Immediate Future, which argued that postwar urban reconstruction, even after so many English cities had been devastated by bombs and blasts, was less important than the construction of motorways. New motorways would ensure that drivers could enjoy unadulterated scenery through the countryside “unimpaired by ribbon building,” and perhaps counterintuitively, new and modern highways would result in the preservation “of Old England by making road-widening in picturesque towns and villages unnecessary” (258).

Motoring around England, in fact, was a significant contributor to the road mapping, if you will, of England’s architectural history. Nikolaus Pevsner’s forty-six-volume Buildings of England (London: Penguin, 1951–74) series was a direct result of the thousands of miles he spent in a Wolseley automobile, driving (or being driven) through England, cataloging and researching noteworthy buildings. It is the impact of motoring on England that is fleshed out and addressed in detail in Carscapes, a study of the way increasingly widespread car ownership in England, from the 1890s to the present day, has affected the country’s architecture, infrastructure, and landscape. The book is expansive in scope but impressively detailed, tackling in the first part, called “The Life Cycle of the Car,” architecture dedicated to the manufacturing, selling, garaging, parking, and filling-up of automobiles over the course of the past hundred-plus years; the second part, “Driving Around,” focuses on the evolution of roadways and their interaction with both country and cityscapes, and includes not just roads but signage, intersections, and crosswalk design as well. A final, concluding section contemplates future trends such as the viability of electric cars.

As is well known, the car was one of the most potent and enduring inspirations for modern architects. For Le Corbusier, for instance, it was a technological touchstone—his Maison Citrohan of 1922, with its obvious reference to the French Citroën, celebrated the potentials of modern materials and mass production, and his 1925 plan for Paris was sponsored by the Voisin automobile manufacturer. The car was also instrumental in his articulation of the idea of the objets-types, objects whose functional form had been perfected and refined through industrial evolution. By provocatively juxtaposing the image of a car with the Parthenon in his 1923 Vers une architecture (Paris: Les Éditions G. Crès), Le Corbusier poetically proposed that standardization was a key element in the new architecture.

The examples within Le Corbusier’s oeuvre alone are numerous, but for all of the modern movement’s main figures, the fascination persisted. Walter Gropius sought an architecture “adapted to our world of machines, wires and fast vehicles” (“Idee und Aufbau des Bauhaus,” Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar 1919–1923, Weimar: Bauhausverlag, 1923); Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian dream was predicated on individual car ownership; and the social ruptures championed by the historical avant-garde were encapsulated in the hyperbolic machismo of the Italian Futurists, who aestheticized speeding cars and automobile accidents.

The history of modern architecture hovers behind the narrative of Carscapes, but it is not its focus. While the car helped advance the utopian polemics and theorizations of modern architects, its ubiquitous presence over the course of the twentieth century is the development that Morrison and Minnis analyze. Although they occasionally make brief comparisons to comparable architecture or roadways in France, Germany, and elsewhere, the book’s single-minded attention on England is important because it is only in the past decade that architectural historians have recognized that England, starting in the aftermath of World War I, had its own culture of modern architecture that grew and developed over the subsequent decades and that was more than a derivative version of continental modernism. Henry-Russell Hitchcock curated an entire exhibition of England’s modern architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1937, confessing he had been remiss in 1932 when he and Philip Johnson organized the landmark Modern Architecture: International Exhibition show, also at MoMA, and included only one English architect. The 1937 exhibition was meant to correct the glaring oversight. Nonetheless, most of the dominant texts of modern architectural history did not acknowledge an avant-garde taking root in England until the postwar period, with the rise of the Independent Group and the New Brutalists. More recently, works by William Whyte, John Gold, Nicholas Bullock, Alan Powers, and Elizabeth Darling, for instance, have contributed to a new understanding of modern architecture in England before World War II.

By focusing specifically on England, Morrison and Minnis tacitly acknowledge that England can now hold its own within modern architecture’s history. The general studies have yielded to more specialized research. Yet at the same time, an awareness of England and its architects during the so-called heroic age of modern architecture sheds much light on the material Carscapes considers. In a way, the 1943 Motorways for Britain exhibition and publication encapsulate several main ideas that animated and characterized modern English architecture. These same ideas underpin Carscapes.

First, the emphasis on scenery and vistas is indicative of the picturesque revival that began to dominate discussions about architecture and town planning by the early 1940s. The picturesque’s interest in scenography and visual excitement was given a modernist inflection and supported in a series of articles published in The Architectural Review throughout the decade. Second, the reference to planning for the immediate future shows a lack of interest in the abstract theories that had characterized twenties and thirties modern architecture and instead stresses the empirical. J. M. Richards, an active member of the English modernist scene, had been concerned about architecture’s “lack of appeal to the Man in the Street” as early as 1940, and of course the designation “The New Empiricism” was used to describe forties architecture’s embrace of cozy, comfortable materials and details in lieu of the hard-edged sleekness that had become associated with the International Style. Third, the reference to ribbon building not only signals an awareness of modernity encroaching on England, but the contrast with unimpeded countryside is a clear reference to the various planning laws, proposals, and schemes—the 1943 County of London Plan, 1944 Greater London Plan, 1946 New Towns Act, 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, among many others—that sought to organize and direct the inevitable sprawl that came about as a result of the postwar housing boom. This interplay between the old and the new, between traditional England and the changing postwar world, is at the heart of Carscapes, and the examples abound. One particularly effective chapter, called “Selling Cars,” leads the reader through the history of English automobile showrooms, from the 1890s when horse-and-carriage dealerships were remade into car showrooms, through the first purpose-built showrooms in the teens and twenties that consciously emulated historical styles, all the way to Norman Foster’s high-tech Renault Center (1980) in Swindon. Modern architecture in England more generally followed a similar trajectory, holding onto tradition and history before more fully embracing the rationalist ideals that had characterized modernist language earlier in the century in continental Europe.

On the one hand, there is a sort of quaintness to the idea of motoring around England, encountering filling stations and timber-framed roadside garages without the technocentrism of high-modernist language. Yet on the other hand, the picturesque spin on modernism nonetheless gave way, in the 1950s and after, to some very hardcore radical rhetoric. Jellicoe proposed picturesque ideals in the forties, but his futuristic Motopia of 1960, also included in the book, hints at a dual sensibility in English modernism, and this dichotomy is at the core of Carscapes. The book touches upon many themes that are at the heart of twentieth-century international modernism, without putting them in that context. Garden City planning, the humanization of modern architecture, postwar fears of suburbanization, neglect of city centers, the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, etc.: all of these issues occupied the avant-garde architectural world at various times throughout the twentieth century and all are discussed or referred to in Carscapes, but not in theoretical terms and not by placing them in the historical context of modern architecture. In a way it is refreshing that these deeper connections are not more overtly considered, allowing Morrison and Minnis to introduce a much wider range of material and suggesting many areas that could be open to analysis for subsequent researchers.

By motoring around the country, Pevsner was able not only to document and study the architecture of his adopted homeland, but he also formulated his idea of “The Englishness of English Art,” the title of his 1955 Reith Lectures for the BBC. The English, he discerned in their art and architecture, had a tendency toward conservatism and moderation, a lack of interest in grandiose theories. In that sense, Carscapes is very English. There is almost a humility to its matter-of-fact, empirical presentation of more than a century’s worth of architectural developments. The scope of the book is huge, yet nothing feels glossed over or superficial. An absolutely enormous amount of material is brought together into a compelling, intelligent narrative. Just as Erwin Panofsky, another German émigré taken to analyzing English art, architecture, and landscape, described Englishness in terms of a duality he found between the complex engineering of a Rolls-Royce and the lyricism of the Palladian temple front of its radiator, car culture as discerned by Morrison and Minnis (names I kept wanting to type as “Morris and Mini,” in further deference to the world of the English automobile) is multi-layered. They tell an engaging story, and beneath the surface there are intricate connections to art, architecture, landscape, engineering, urbanism, history, culture, and social mores.

“What next?” the authors ask at the end of Carscapes. Has car ownership peaked because of environmental concerns, or is a new era just beginning, with the advent of electric cars? They cite the abandoned M23 roadway in Surrey, now overgrown with trees and shrubbery, as evidence that car culture has been unpredictable, and they suggest that types of car parks might someday be eyed for historic preservation (the authors, in fact, are both architectural historians who work for English Heritage) if car culture continues to change and evolve. The book ends on this speculative note, perhaps placing itself in the context of English car culture: the most famous car-chase movie in postwar English cinematic history—The Italian Job (1969), starring Michael Caine and Noël Coward—ends, literally, with a cliffhanger. A gang of thieves and its loot teeter in a motor coach on the edge of a cliff; as the coach tilts precariously, the stolen gold bullion slides further out of the gang’s reach. The vehicle is in control. “Hang on a minute, lads,” says the mobster Charlie Croker, Caine’s character, “I’ve got a great idea.” The film ends, but a new story is beginning. The groundwork has been laid, the road paved, and one can only imagine, “what next?”

Deborah Lewittes
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Music, Bronx Community College of The City University of New York

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.