St Anthony's lighthouse, Falmouth Harbour (1938). © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Guest article: Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection to bring you a series of features highlighting some of the hidden treasures of the collection.
Ever since its invention, photography has profoundly influenced our perception of architecture, especially through its printed reproduction in books and journals.
This has been true not just of those photographs taken by professional architectural photographers, but also those less formal images captured by skilled amateurs, among them journalists and artists.
Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the pages of the Architectural Review, founded in 1896 and later photographically and typographically transformed during the 1930s.
Published alongside the more rigorous set-piece presentation of refulgent new Modernist buildings were freer, often more dynamic snapshots taken on smaller format cameras such as the Leica or Rolleiflex. These were taken by an array of amateurs in polemical support of particular causes such as the preservation of the countryside or the halting of unsightly advertising.
Prominent among these was the artist John Piper (1903-1992) who in the late 1930s toured the countryside with the Architectural Review's editor Jim Richards, seeking out and photographing unregarded examples of vernacular structures such as lighthouses and nonconformist chapels. They considered the simple, unadorned propriety of these structures to be precedents for Modernist architecture.
In this regard, the resulting articles such as 'The Nautical Style', published in January 1938, served to counteract criticisms made by Modernism’s opponents that it was an alien import lacking indigenous roots.
Warehouse, Boston, Lincolnshire (1940s). © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Indeed, the importance of Piper's photographs lay less in their technique, which was often little more than competent, but in their subject matter. As in his painting, for which his topographical photographs often acted as preliminary studies, Piper had an unerring eye for exciting what the architectural historian John Summerson called "a new curiosity about unnoticed, unlisted things".
This is very evident in the photographs he took for the Shell Guides, beginning with his volume on Oxfordshire in 1938, and also the later Murray guides such as Buckinghamshire (1948), which eschewed the conventional tourist views.
During the war and after, his photographs illustrated articles he wrote for the Architectural Review trumpeting the virtues of subjects as diverse as flint; shops; the Donegal custom of embellishing its stucco houses with painted quoins and stonework details; the 'gratuitous semi-circle' in English late classical architecture; and church towers in Eastern England, which was geographically balanced by an article entitled 'Warmth in the West' studying the West of England penchant for painting house exteriors.
Some of the most influential of these were a series he wrote seeking to preserve the unique nature of the British pub. More controversial was the 1947 essay 'Pleasing Decay', a plea for structurally sound ruins to be retained for the picturesque delights they would afford.
The Architectural Press published a selection of these articles together with some he wrote for other magazines in book form in 1948 as Buildings and Prospects. Marking the end of Piper's regular writing for the Architectural Review, it remains an engrossing read.
The influence of Piper the photographer was pronounced, feeding into mainstream practice and greatly enlarging the notion of what actually constituted architecture.
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