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Atmospheric: The Bryant and May factory, Bow; Balfron Tower, Poplar; and Cesar Pelli Tower, Canary Wharf, photographed by Charles Saumarez Smith (©Charles Saumarez Smith)


At the outset let’s be clear what this handsome and intriguing book is not. It is not a comprehensive architectural and cultural history of East London. Nor is it a beautifully illustrated coffee table book, though Pentagram, the designers, have made a desirable object of it. It is an analogue recreation of the author’s online blog, tracing his aesthetically and historically informed journeys through his adopted quarter of London, illustrated with photographs taken on his smartphone. Some of the journeys trace his immediate home environment in Mile End and Stepney on his way to and from the grandeurs of the West End where he works, or, more domestically, going to the shops. Others are more extended weekend and holiday rambles to the further reaches of the eastern territories, alive with the anticipation of encounters with known but previously unvisited buildings and streets, or the surprise of the discovery of an unexpected alleyway, courtyard or vista.

Some of the photographs may not satisfy the eye of the architectural historian, hungry for detail. But when they are not clear, they are usually atmospheric. Collectively they will be a revelation to those who have an uninflected knowledge of East London. They will spring surprises on most pages for those who may think they know it well. To those sceptical of the culture of instantaneous and constant digital communication with a wide and anonymous constituency the casual style of the explicatory texts may grate at first. In this case familiarity breeds enjoyment. Although East London presents itself as a book to dip into, I found I got most out of it by reading it at a single sitting — the sense of a journey of discovery even into districts I thought I knew well, carried me forwards with relish.

Charles Saumarez Smith — currently Secretary of the Royal Academy and previously Director of the National Gallery — moved to the East End at roughly the same time as I did and for similar reasons. Thirty years ago we were both in search of an affordable Georgian house to restore and to settle our young families into. He ended up in mid-18th-century splendour in the Mile End Road, I in more austere neo-classical surroundings north of Victoria Park. I was faintly piqued that my own row of houses, described in a well-known book on London’s 18th-century architecture as “one of the finest brick terraces built in Georgian London”, doesn’t merit a mention. Nor does Sutton House in Homerton— one of the oldest surviving domestic buildings in London — where I was married and the author was a wedding guest — its Tudor panelled rooms then overlooking a car breaker’s yard. But Saumarez Smith’s book is not intended to be comprehensive, and perhaps the best secrets are the well-kept ones.

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