Book Review: London's Contemporary Architecture

London's Contemporary Architecture: An Explorer's Guide by Kenneth Allinson
Architectural Press, 2009
Paperback, 384 pages

My last visit to London occurred during the much ballyhooed Millennium celebrations, a mixture of fireworks in the Thames River and high-profile architecture along the same. In the press both were a disappointment, be it poor pyrotechnics or excessive lottery spending on projects still under construction when the calendar clicked over to 2000. My experience involved days out walking and riding the Tube, checking out the latest architecture, from the Millennium Dome and Jubilee Line extension built for the occassion to buildings by Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Will Alsop and others. My agenda was compiled from guidebooks, web pages (few at the time) and magazines, though unknown to me was Kenneth Allinson's guide to contemporary architecture, then in its first edition. A second edition came out later that year and three updates have followed since, roughly every three years. Last year's fifth edition collects more than 400 buildings built in London in the last decade. The fine book would have been an all-in-one guide for my needs ten years ago.
If anybody should write a guidebook to contemporary architecture in London it is Ken Allinson. He is not only an architect and writer/lecturer (the usual credentials) but a founding trustee of Open House. Since 1992 the organization has provided tours of buildings and spaces normally off limits to the pubilc, taking place on one weekend in the fall. The goal is to raise the standards of design in London by focusing on architectural excellence. It is a formula much repeated and found in many metropolitan cities, such as New York City. So Allinson has devoted much effort to not only promoting good buildings but getting people out into the city experience them. The guidebook reads like having Allinson or some other guide teach one about particular buildings, their contexts and how they came into being. Depending on the building, descriptions range from a few sentences to a few pages. The author describes the formal properties but he never limits himself to that, like other guidebooks. His critiques as well can be biting: The Millennium Dome is described as "a brilliant way of doing something inherently meaningless."
But guides are judged by more than their text. They are a complex assemblage of descriptions, photographs, maps, and graphic design (the last is a combination of page layout as well as navigation throughout the book, being able to find and reference entries). In the first two cases the book is superb, but the maps and layout of the book leave room for improvement. The maps are not vector-generated (using Illustrator, as is the standard), so they are a pixelated backgrounds behind entry numbers and text. The legibility of the maps could be greatly improved as well as the navigation from map to entry; the different number/color combinations add a layer of complexity that could have been avoided by numberering the entries from 1 to 400. Furthermore some entries include the address, architect and Tube stop in the page margins, at ninety-degrees to the book's text. These highlighted entries are further demarcated from "lesser" entries by plain text versus italics, respectively. The sum of the parts is not as great as it could be.
This in-depth dissection of the different parts of the guidebook illustrates the importance of making all of these elements work together. Of course my attention to this stems from thinking about my own guide to New York City that I'm currently writing, my desire to learn from predecessors, whatever the city may be. Allinson's book is valuable -- for me and others -- in the depth of descriptions for buildings and the backgrounds on the different areas of London. Illustrations include not only photos but also plans and other architectural drawings helpful in conveying important information. Allinson also describes London's urban design, be it planned or the result of various actors meeting geographically and across time. This approach to context helps situate the reader in the city historically and politically, just as the book helps get one into the city on foot.