Guest Article: the work of Eric de Maré in the Royal Institute of British Architects Library

By Robert Elwall, Assistant Director at the RIBA Library Photographs Collection | 18 October 2010
a photo of two woemn walking in front of a grouping of large leaning slatted sheds with apex roofs
‘Skyscraper’ fishermen’s sheds, the Stade, Hastings (1956)© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Culture24 continues its series on the Royal Institute of British Architects Library Photographs Collection with an exploration of the pioneering work of Eric de Maré...

Eric de Maré (1910-2002) was one of Britain's greatest and most influential architectural photographers. His photographs not only embraced a wide range of subjects from Britain’s industrial and architectural heritage to the architecture of foreign lands and the work of contemporary practitioners, but also gained wide currency through their reproduction both in the professional and more general press.

In addition, he was a prolific author who wrote more than 20 books, including the popular Penguin Photography (1957), which ran to seven editions, and Photography and Architecture (1961), which still remains one of the most penetrating analyses of the subject.

Although he was born in Enfield, de Maré's parents were Swedish and he enjoyed a lifelong passion for Scandinavia. This was particularly reflected in his championing of post-war Swedish architecture which he saw as a humanistic alternative to the more rigid forms of International Modernism and which accorded with the outlook of the Architectural Review with which he was closely associated for many years.

Another refrain in his work was his interest in London and especially the Thames. In July 1950 he wrote and largely illustrated a special number of the Architectural Review advocating the designation of the Thames and its hinterland between Teddington and Cricklade as a "linear national park" to preserve it from blight and unfettered development.

It was with his prolonged investigation of what came to be called Britain's "functional tradition", however, that de Maré had his most pronounced influence.

a black and white photograph of a man in flat cap pictured through a tunnel leaning against a canal lock gate
Lock at Hack Green on the Shropshire Union Canal (1948)© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
This essentially embraced the country's neglected industrial heritage and began with de Maré's special issue on canals for the Architectural Review in 1949, which was reissued in book form as The Canals of England during the following year.

Although his ostensible purpose was to document structures that were in danger of disappearing as a result of the 1948 canal nationalisation, de Maré was also concerned to stress that these anonymous, vernacular structures with their simple, forthright and unadorned forms provided a casebook of precedents for Modernist architects to rebuild post-war Britain.

He continued this argument with further books including Bridges of Britain (1954) and The Nautical Style: an Aspect of the Functional Tradition (1973).

De Maré's most celebrated exposition of the functional tradition came with the seminal Architectural Press book The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings (1958), which was written by Jim Richards, the assistant editor of the Architectural Review, but predominantly illustrated by de Maré. The book proved a landmark publication in the study of industrial archaeology and hugely influential on contemporary architects such as James Stirling and Michael Hopkins.

De Maré's humanistic, crusading images made a telling contribution to the post-war reassessment of Modernism and gave a new respectability to architectural photography by extending its influence beyond the narrow confines of professional discourse.

As he wrote himself: "The photographer is perhaps the best architectural critic, for by felicitous framing and selection he can communicate direct and powerful comments both in praise and protest. He can also discover and reveal architecture where none was intended by creating abstract compositions of an architectonic quality – perhaps from a ruined wall, an old motor car, or a pile of box lids."

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