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Networking for modernism.


By Jeremy Melvin, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. 2003. [pounds sterling]29.95

The familiar photograph of F.R.S. Yorke that prefaces this slim but nicely produced study presents the image of a rubicund tea-drinking tweedy Englishman--the epitome of the trusty professional whose name is synonymous with the non-ideological no-nonsense technically solid strain of modern architecture that gathered pace during the later 1930s and reached its apogee in the first wave of post-war national reconstruction. But the text itself reveals another and rather less agreeable portrait of Yorke as an impecunious chancer whose fabled technical competence is recurrently disproved and whose modest architectural talent was compensated for by constant networking and creative dependency on others.

Melvin examines his subject through five short essays covering in turn Yorke's publishing activities, his practical ventures, his clients, his position in the development of modern planning and the genesis of the firm YRM that converted the precarious pre-war gains into the successful mainstream architectural business of the post-war years. A sixth essay by Yorke's erstwhile partner David Allford provides a personal memoir that conveys the man's character as a work colleague with freshness and candour. The illustrations are good quality, if generally familiar, all black and white, and include at least as many buildings by others as by Yorke himself. The drawings are, however, a disappointment, with insufficient annotation, and curiously reticent on Yorke's supposed engagement with construction.

Melvin demonstrates that Yorke's most convincing achievement was his book The Modern House (1934)--a milestone in architectural publishing--the research for which propelled him rapidly up the learning curve of continental Modernism and furnished him with valuable contacts for his later career. Its function as a practical manual and rallying call for other aspiring Modernists was also crucial, if also unquantifiable. This pre-eminence as a writer, or more specifically compiler, rather than practitioner, is duly confirmed by his own building endeavours which were few in number and quickly dumbed down from the Czech-inspired white cuboids of Torilla and Shangri-La into a workaday bricky pragmatism of quite stunning banality, with flat roofs that began leaking soon after completion. The better known pre-war works bearing Yorke's name--the house at Angmering or the ambitious Concrete Garden City project--turn out to be largely attributable to his transient and vastly more talented partner Marcel Breuer.

Melvin attributes Yorke's non-ideological brand of Modernism to a mixture of Middle-England family background, his education in Chipping Camden with its Arts and Crafts ethos and a resulting predisposition to regard architecture as the fortuitous by-product of appropriate component assembly. Although this logically led him to champion the ideal of efficient industrialized modular construction, his own brief foray into the genre, a pair of Braithwaite houses on the LCC Watling Street Estate at Burnt Oak, was a labour-intensive failure, the building itself shortly being destroyed by a nearby flying bomb. In similar somewhat contradictory vein, while promoting the importance of town planning in delivering a coherent modern environment, Yorke curiously declined Donald Gibson's invitation to join him in rebuilding Coventry and eschewed the part in the post-war New Towns programme which his networking skills could surely have secured him.

Thus the somewhat threadbare achievements recorded in the biographical content of Melvin's study make his subtitle--'the evolution of English Modernism', and by implication Yorke's role in it--feel more a matter of assertion than proof. His status as a 'key figure' seems to have emerged less from any exemplary accomplishment (save perhaps the book) than from his ubiquitous and affable presence. A trencherman of apparently awesome alcoholic capacity, Yorke was at least as devoted to 'the good life' as to any architectural agenda and accordingly was happy to delegate much of the work in his share of YRM to younger and more able assistants. And perhaps paradoxically it is this personality trait that preserves his place in history, in providing the vital human glue that bound together the partnership, which in turn proved to be his most substantial legacy.
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Article Details
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Author:Allan, John
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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