6. Neal Shasore
Historian, Teacher, Administrator
London - UK
We met our next guest on a cold Friday night at the London School of Architecture (LSA), where Neal Shasore is currently Head of School and Chief Executive Officer. What followed was a rich and detailed account of Neal’s library and the books that have been critical to his current practice as a historian, teacher and administrator.
Prior to his role at the LSA, Neal held research positions at University of Westminster, as a Research Associate on Susannah Hagan’s project on ‘Public Space and the Role of the Architect’ (psarchitect.org) and at Liverpool School of Architecture, where he undertook a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship. He was also a Departmental Lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Oxford, where he previously studied art and architecture history for several years. His research has largely focused on the architectural culture of Imperial Britain in the first decades of the twentieth century. This work is culminating in a number of book projects reaching imminent release; ‘Designs on Democracy: Architecture and the Public in Interwar London’ (Oxford University Press); ‘RECONSTRUCTION: Architecture, Society and the Aftermath of the First World War’ (Bloomsbury Academic, co-edited with Dr Jessica Kelly, University for the Creative Arts), and a new history of 66 Portland Place, the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to be published by RIBA Publishing. As you can imagine Neal has been exceptionally busy: for a self-proclaimed ‘slow-reader’, his output is incredible. He has also published in journals including arq, Architectural History, and Twentieth Century Architecture.
The interview offers insights into Neal’s research, uncovering hidden gems such as the book he feels – had he read it 10 years earlier – would have had a profound impact on his current research interests; as well as critical dissections of books on manners, the Arts and Crafts movement and the architectural profession. Student, practitioner, architect, writer or historian – there's something for everyone in this fascinating interview.
Could you give us a brief overview of the library in your office here at the London School of Architecture? Are these yours or are they part of the School’s library?
These are mine. I started this job at the LSA in June and it took me a while to get a desk and bookshelves in our new studio at Orsman Road. I would say there are about 150 here and probably another couple of hundred at home. These are scattered around my room, and I was regularly tripping over them during the lockdowns. My research focuses on architecture from the 1920s and 1930s so I have a collection of quite obscure books on that period.
And are you organising the library in any way? Is that collection forming one significant part of your library?
Not at the moment. At home, they are loosely collected together by theme. At various points I have tried to introduce a system, but I find I have quite a good memory for where things are amongst the warren. I do always find what I need when I’m looking for it, except when I really don’t [laughs]. There is another large library on the other side of the studio, which is part of Alan Powers’s and Peter Buchanan’s extensive collection - they form the nucleus of a haphazard but eclectic and rich LSA library.
“It was lots of white, middle class men, designing buildings for everybody – across a quarter of the globe as part of the British Empire. So, for my work, there was a form of insider-outsider critique going on, which I feel is only growing stronger as my work matures. The reason I’m able, I think, to access that period and those people is because they do feel quite alien to me on the one hand, but strangely familiar on the other.”
What has been the most influential book throughout your time practising?
Well, I suppose my practice is slightly different to some of your other interviewees as I am not a designer. My practice is as a historian, a researcher, a teacher and administrator. The five people who know anything about my work, will be unsurprised at the books I’m about to show you in answer to this question [laughs].
For various reasons I ended up working on 1920s and 1930s architecture. Not particularly because I like that architecture; it was almost deliberately not about an architectural history driven by taste, but rather about an area that I felt required work. It represented a time and a place, which for me, as a second generation immigrant was the opposite of what my people were doing in the 1920s and 30s. It was lots of white, middle class men, designing buildings for everybody – across a quarter of the globe as part of the British Empire. So, for my work, there was a form of insider-outsider critique going on, which I feel is only growing stronger as my work matures. The reason I’m able, I think, to access that period and those people is because they do feel quite alien to me on the one hand, but strangely familiar on the other. For a lot of people writing about that era it is the opposite: it is their parents, grandparents, or at least their particular taste. There’s a direct connection or affinity. The wave of writing about the 1920s and 30s in the 1970s, for instance, valorised certain figures from that period, among them I figure I’m very interested in: Trystan Edwards. I did a little bit of work on Regent Street and its rebuilding in the first quarter of the 20th century. One of the most powerful critics of the new Regent Street and an ardent fan of the old, was Trystan Edwards, so I was told to read his book by my supervisors, ‘Good and Bad Manners in Architecture: An essay on Social Aspects of Civic Design’. I got my copy probably from AbeBooks or somewhere, which is now well-thumbed and beaten up. This is the second edition, from 1946. In its day it was quite a famous book. Edwards was a Welsh architect, planner and critic who had studied at Oxford, where he had read maths and philosophy, served articles with Reginald Blomfield, then went to Liverpool and studied with Charles Herbert Reilly in the department of civic design, which was the first university department of town planning in the country. So in a sense, he was one of the pioneers of of civic design in Britain.
“So this book – and Trystan Edwards’s work more generally – became particularly useful for me in complicating lots of assumptions about 20th century architecture and about the easy alignment of progressivism with modernism and conservatism with traditionalism, and everything in between.”
It is a weird book. Crankish is often the word attached to Trystan Edwards, and he is crankish! It is very easy to come away with the impression that he is the archetypal English conservative particularly prevalent in the 20s and 30s. However, in reality, he was a Labour Party voter his whole life. Whilst at Oxford, he was a young Fabian and he was married by Hewlett Johnson, the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury Cathedral. He was very interested in social credit, heterodox economics, in Liberal Anglicanism; he was a progressive! But he was also anti-modern, or anti-modernist. So this book – and Trystan Edwards’s work more generally – became particularly useful for me in complicating lots of assumptions about 20th century architecture and about the easy alignment of progressivism with modernism and conservatism with traditionalism, and everything in between. Edwards was an intellectual mess, but aren’t we all? [laughs]. This was the classic example of inside-outside I mentioned; he didn’t quite fit. There was a kinship, or affinity I felt with that. This really helped me get at what might be interesting about him.
This is the second edition of his first book, ‘The Things which are Seen; A Revolution of the Visual Arts’, which was published in 1921 though largely written during the war. Again, it’s bonkers! He essentially adumbrated his theory of everything, proposing a new hierarchy of the arts, placing ‘the cultivation of human beauty’ first. He had a long standing interest in positive eugenics and was a precocious follower of Nietzsche in Edwardian Britain. The rest of the new hierarchy in descending order was as follows: Manners, Dress, Architecture, Painting, Sculpture. In a sense, manners, for him, was the most important ‘art’ – this is reflected in ‘Good and Bad Manners’ discussed earlier.
Edwards was also significant because he worked with Raymond Unwin on the state housing scheme. Edwards did not like Unwin at all and developed an entirely heterodox attitude to housing policy. Unwin emerged from the Garden City Movement, having designed Letchworth with his cousin, Barry Parker; he ‘master-planned’ Hampstead Garden Suburb for Henrietta Barnett. These projects were all about low density, cottage estates – either satellite new towns, or suburban peripheral development. Edwards completely disagreed with Unwin. For him, the Regency Period, that produced Regent Street, was an ideal of urbanity, of density and thriving urban life. As a result, in 1933, he launched the ‘100 New Towns for Britain’ campaign, which is the pioneering low rise, high density housing campaign. All your Neave Brown’s and Sydney Cooks that Mark Swenarton has written so brilliantly about, didn’t so much come out of Edwards, but certainly were anticipated by his work. There are, albeit fairly tortuous, links in the genealogy of LRHD housing that you could follow back to Trystan Edwards.
“For Edwards, the Regency Period, that produced Regent Street, was an ideal of urbanity, of density and thriving urban life. As a result, in 1933, he launched the ‘100 New Towns for Britain’ campaign, which is the pioneering low rise, high density housing campaign.”
His work is completely idiosyncratic, but there was a method to his madness. He produces beautiful drawings, advocating for architectural elements such as quadrangular plans and pyramidal section. He was obsessed with the recess and concealing services with ornamentation, and also thought a lot about houses that would exclude dust and noise, two very interwar preoccupations in urban living. In the 1920s, Edwards defended materialism in direct opposition to the most prominent theory of the time, idealism. He promoted a commitment to the immediate material world, and inverted a lot of the post-Ruskinian ideas of manifesting constructional truth in elevations. He highlighted how hiding or concealing elements could be philosophically interesting, part of a performance of manners. I don’t necessarily agree with that, and of course manners is an incredibly loaded word, but it is interesting work. There is a wonderful book by Simon Gikandi about the implication of the discourses on politeness and manners in 18th century enlightenment philosophy, at the same time as black bodies being traded and abused through the transatlantic slave trade. Manners is not a neutral word.
It is fascinating as it makes you question - manners to who; in what way; or in what culture? I was watching your discussion on the ‘Race and Modern Architecture’ book for the Architecture Foundation in November 2020. The Edwards book you’ve mentioned is a very one-sided view, in that he is writing a whole book on manners; on what he believes to be polite. It is all based on his own individual thought. Interesting and quite shocking at the same time.
Exactly. This book has been very important to my practice, because it has opened up the space for difficult and heterodox ideas, which I do find useful as a researcher and indeed, as a teacher in the way that I approach working with institutions like the LSA. This was a book that suggested to me that there was a way of thinking that could be bold and brave. The idea of the ‘things which are seen’ which complicated a prevalent Gnosticism about the material world, I also find quite useful and resonant with contemporary society’s scepticism about design. There are almost parental lessons echoed in this book about how you are in the world; they become ones you struggle to stop wrestling with, even if you disagree with them.
And how are you working with books? Does this differ across your research and teaching? Different methodologies?
It has changed quite a lot over the years. I must admit I am not very good at reading. I am slow and have always found it quite difficult. In academia, it can often be presumed that you are a ‘book person’ and that you read voraciously. I see working with books for research as a mining exercise. I don’t necessarily read the whole book, but instead go through a process of targeted note-taking. Hand-written notes are still the best way for me to remember something. I don’t write in books and can never condone that [laughs]. Historically, I used to try and summarise texts in my own words, as a way of cementing my understanding of the book, but I find that very difficult to do now. At the same time I find my intuitive ability to remember and summarise has diminished.
From how you are speaking about ‘mining’, I can imagine you do a lot of reading on the computer. Do you find yourself searching for keywords?
I never actually search via the computer. I still do it the old fashioned way - index. I used to print lots of things out. I did find in lockdown that I was able to read again. I think a big barrier to my reading is psychological. I think lockdown cemented that, as my family, friends and I were lucky enough to maintain their health, I did find myself spending large swathes of time reading. There is definitely a different mode of reading when I’m working and I’ve got archive material to get through. With archival material I will take a huge of photographs of documents, which I then organise and collate into my own set of notes.
Where are you finding the books you collect?
There was a time when I was going to a lot of bookshops, but I would say predominantly online now. I went to university in Oxford so there were a lot of second-hand bookshops, as well as Blackwell’s and various Oxfams. In London, all of my favourite second-hand bookshops that I used to go to in the suburbs of south west London don’t exist anymore, which is really sad. There was one in Wimbledon – Copperfield’s – and one in Balham – My Back Pages – that were particular favourites. So sadly, they now tend to come from the internet.
And if you could re-discover one book, what would it be? A book that perhaps you didn’t fully understand at the time, or you wish you could read for the first time now with the experiences you’ve had…
Annoyingly, I don’t have it here as I lost it years ago. When I was 16, I bought a Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ pamphlet, ‘On Art and Life’, with two Ruskin essays including ‘On the Nature of Gothic’ from ‘The Stones of Venice’. I was going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and read it on the train journey. It completely stirred me, setting me on the intellectual journey to where I am today. I would love to have that kind of moment again. I didn’t fully understand it, yet it had a really profound impact.
Another book I read in the aftermath of the very disappointing 2019 general election result did the opposite: it perfectly aligned with the current state of things. I had been told to read this book for much of my undergraduate degree by my dear friend, Jane Garnett, the 19th century intellectual historian, who always encouraged my interest in architecture and ornament. It was William Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere or, An Epoch of Rest’. It completely knocked me for six. It was so powerful and the perfect time to read it; not least because it had timely comments about referenda! It had a certain intensity of the environment it described; a vision I found moving.
“This is to try and get architectural students to wake up to the fact that they are not builders whilst in this critical moment in the development of their practice. That has two consequences. It reminds them, if they are paying attention, to the fact that they are designing for people who then have to build it. Secondly, it should prompt some kind of profound existential questioning about whether architecture as a discipline, and as a practice, is implicated in some way of thinking and being in the world that they are not actually comfortable with in an age of imminent ecological collapse, climate catastrophe and great social inequity.”
More recently, this book, ‘On Decoloniality : Concepts, Analytics, Praxis’ by Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh has been completely transformative for me. It is the sort of book I wish I had read 10 years ago as I think it would have set me on a very different course intellectually in terms of my research interest. It would have given me greater confidence to write the histories that relate more closely to my heritage, which is where my research interest is evolving. Had I read it 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have understood enough of it, but hopefully it would have sparked enough to send me in that direction. It speaks to me more than Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ or Homi K Bhabha’s work, both of which were inspirational and important in my undergraduate studies. I think if I had understood more of what they were saying, however, my work would explore very different topics now. I don’t regret it, but I think there is some sort of longing for a road not taken.
Most definitely. As you were saying with your research, these ideas are becoming more prevalent in your work now. Perhaps it was this subconscious way in which you set up your practice that has led you to where you are, from the era that you did choose to look at.
Yes, and of course, none of it is wasted. But again, what I love about this book is concept, analytics, praxis. For me, it is the last word, praxis, that sums up my relationship with books. As a historian and teacher, I’m much more motivated by the immediacy of praxis than I am by history and ‘theory’.
What do you think it is about the ‘Stones of Venice’ for example that had such a profound effect on you? Even without understanding it all.
It was the lyricism of Ruskin’s writing. The power of the polemic. I think it was genuinely equivalent to my adolescent death metal phase. It had an aggression to it. I know that probably makes me sound totally weird, if not a complete moron, but looking back it really did. At the time I had an interest in design, but probably a peripheral one to a wider interest in art, so as a vision of the built environment, it seemed genuinely rock and roll. Very powerful. I don’t know what else I was reading or thinking at that age, but I do remember having been to see the modernism exhibition at the V&A curated by Christopher Wilk. I very much thought I was a modernist and really believed in that. Perhaps it was reading Ruskin that offered a powerful antithesis to that.
Feeding into that, is there anything you would recommend to an aspiring young practitioner?
At the moment, I am reading a lot about the Arts and Crafts movement because I think it has a lot of interesting ideas about a kind of design that is rich and complex, but also, with Morris and others, has a proto-environmentalism and social critique. Of course, the Arts and Crafts movement is a much more complicated picture and is perfectly implicated in imperialism and an extractivist mode of design and production. I don’t valorise it in a kind of misty-eyed way, but there was something in it. When I speak to students about education and institutions of education or the politics of design and construction I find Lethaby’s work particularly useful. That generation and the one that followed him I find interesting.
This interest can manifest itself in quite surprising places. For example, this is a book written by Frederic Towndrow, or Tony Towndrow as he was known, who was one of the first editors of AD magazine, which in the 1930s was a defence of modernist design. But just the title and dedication of this book betrays two important influences. The posthumous dedication to Professor Lethaby, ‘a teacher he never met’. Secondly, he makes reference to humanism which is linked to Geoffrey Scott’s ‘The Architecture of Humanism’, another book that was co-opted by the Right in the 1970s, despite the Scott’s being a prominent, progressive Liberal family. His uncle C.P Scott was the long serving editor of the Manchester Guardian, a bastion of liberal progressivism in the north-west.
The other book that I’m finding I give to students a lot is Brian Hanson’s ‘Constructing Authority: Architects and the ‘Building World’ from Chambers to Ruskin’, a book about the history of construction. This is to try and get architectural students to wake up to the fact that they are not builders whilst in this critical moment in the development of their practice. That has two consequences. It reminds them, if they are paying attention, to the fact that they are designing for people who then have to build it. Secondly, it should prompt some kind of profound existential questioning about whether architecture as a discipline, and as a practice, is implicated in some way of thinking and being in the world that they are not actually comfortable with in an age of imminent ecological collapse, climate catastrophe and great social inequity. Obviously I’m speaking in shorthand but I have found this book very useful for discussion with students.
The other, is a very beaten up copy of the sociologist Barrington Kaye’s ‘The Development of the Architectural Profession in Britain’, a reminder that architecture can be incredibly myopic. This hard-nosed sociological analysis of architectural professionalism forces us to put architecture in a context. It is not all about design professionalism; professionalism was and is a much broader, sociological phenomenon. This book helped me to make that conceptual jump. In the end it has driven a lot of the arguments presented in my monograph, ‘Designs on Democracy’, that is coming out later this year.
“Architecture is definitely more than just monument making. But it is always difficult coming back to that question, what really is this constructed discipline of architecture, which is supposedly fundamentally about design, really about? Can we think about these elements through design? Does this offer a more stimulating alternative?”
One final question, which I noted down whilst watching the talk you did with the Architecture Foundation on Antwerp. In that discussion, you talk about the necessity for museums and galleries to go beyond just adding a plaque making reference to some colonial past and my question surrounds what you think the role of literature will have, or could have, in decolonising the architectural profession?
Very interesting, and a difficult question, which I will answer obliquely. In one of the essays that I’m editing for an upcoming volume on ‘Reconstruction’ after the First World War, Geoffrey Tyack, the architectural historian, has written a piece about Rhodes House (dedicated to the memory of Cecil Rhodes) and the architecture of memory. I’m trying to link this to the legacy of Rhodes and his favourite architect, Herbert Baker, who was derided by his one-time friend, and later adversary, Edward Lutyens, as being a literary architect; as somebody who did not think spatially in that sense that we think of Lutyens having done, and indeed of Lutyens thinking that he himself did. Rhodes, I suppose, was aware of that very self-conscious literary symbolism in the fashioning of his selfhood and his legacy and images.
I’m arguing analogously that architects need to not rely on ‘literature’ so much. Instead they need to think spatially, materially and in terms of design. Actually it doesn’t need to be an involved literary thing, it is about space-and place-making. Of course there needs to be a careful reading of texts but it then needs to be translated into design.
I suppose I am looking at this from the point of view of engagement. What role can literature play in making more people engage with the topic, in a meaningful way, so that they participate in this process of decolonisation? As you say, perhaps it is how it is translated into space-making, be it through architecture, or events, or exhibitions.
Exactly. Architecture is definitely more than just monument making. But it is always difficult coming back to that question, what really is this constructed discipline of architecture, which is supposedly fundamentally about design, really about? Can we think about these elements through design? Does this offer a more stimulating alternative?
All photography by Tim Lucas unless otherwise stated.