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Learning London by Landscape

LONDON ARCHITECTURE: FEATURES AND FACADES Photography by Matthew Weinreb Commentary by Ben Weinreb Phaidon Press Ltd 240 pp.,$49.95.

`WHEN a man is tired of London he is tired of life.'' So said the forever quotable Dr. Samuel Johnson.

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There have, however, been those who have not seen the British capital in quite such a complimentary light. Benjamin Disraeli, for example, in his novel ``Tancred'' wrote, ``London is a modern Babylon.''

London - depending on your taste - is either everything a city should be or everything a city should not be. One thing is certain, it is impossible to be neutral about this vast and sprawling conurbation. Some of its inhabitants have suggested that the best thing about it is that you can get out of it. Mind you, escaping from London isn't an instantaneous process.

The city radiates - or, at least, it's a formless thing of countless tentacles. This enormous metropolis has over the centuries greedily swallowed once-outlying towns, villages, and fields to swell its belly so that even when one has actually driven across its outer boundaries, it is still not entirely clear that London has ended and the rest of the country begun.

Henry James, appreciative of London, nevertheless sometimes felt overwhelmed by it. ``I have been crushed,'' he wrote, ``under a sense of the mere magnitude of London - its inconceivable immensity.... The place sits on you, broods on you, stamps on you....''

Conceptually, London contains its inhabitants and visitors, rather than the other way around. This is not quite true of all cities. It is much easier to feel that it is you who contains Paris or Venice or even New York. It is not just a matter of size or scale. It is a matter of an overall picture of the place - an orientation, a mental image of certain central points and certain peripheries.

It isn't even only a matter of how easy it is to get lost. I have been hopelessly lost in Venice, yet the experience is more like being lost in a small garden maze than in the inexplorable entrails of some gargantuan biomorph. At least in Venice, you know that even if you may never be found again, your bones will be rediscovered centuries hence within a very short distance of St. Mark's. In London - I am convinced - there are people who have unwittingly come for the day and have been living there ever since for no other reason than an inability to find a way out again.

This is why, personally, I have the most extraordinary admiration for anyone who knows London. The London taxi drivers, as a body, are a kind of wonder of the world in this respect.

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One I employed the other day did, it is true, complain that (and I quote) ``the bane of my existence are young girls. Young girls who jump in the back straight out of an office and ask me to take them to some mews! All they know is its name. I say, where is that near then? They 'aven't a clue! Look, I tell 'em, 'ow do you expect me to know all the mewses in London, eh? There's thousands of mewses. And they never give me a tip. Young girls!!''

I can bet, though, that this cab driver finds every mews he is asked to find. He, like all of his profession, knows London better than the back of his hand.

I am trying to get to know London better myself - by taking taxis. I realize that the main reason I do not know the place well is the Underground map. I have in the past moved around London mainly by ``tube'' (buses, without fail, are always going in the wrong direction), using the schematic chart offered to all tube-travelers as a map, with all the different Underground lines crisscrossing each other like some sort of embroidery.

But in fact it is not a map at all. The distances and relationships between, say, Sloane Square and Charing Cross, or Aldgate East and Hampstead, are in no way to scale. You may travel underground, taking a long time about it and changing trains more than once, and never realize that you could have walked it in a few minutes.

And of course, if you take the London Underground's Northern or Metropolitan or Piccadilly line as your sole means of transport, you never see the streets or buildings at all between departure and arrival. You may end up knowing the tube very well. But of London you will remain (like me) an ignoramus.

CITIES - which, like most large and wandering things, are the sum of their parts - are, if they can be said to be composed of any one thing, made of buildings. Or parts of buildings. Facades and surfaces, doorways and windows, processions of arcades and columns, arches and domes, gables and roofs and decorative details - all of these combine to give a city its distinctive air, its special character. Some cities, particularly those built over a short time and frozen without further growth, or those on which some master plan has been oligarchically imposed, may have a remarkable consistency in their building style.

London, which has grown and grown, and has had its share of iconoclasm, changing fashions, and bombs, can only be enjoyed as a kaleidoscope of variety and difference. Its parts overwhelm its whole.

This, at any rate, is the picture that photographer Matthew Weinreb builds of London in his new book ``London Architecture: Features and Facades.'' His excellent photography - and this is as much a book of photography as it is a book about London - scans the textural surfaces, the wide-angle perspectives, the strange viewpoints, but above all the unnoticed detail of the buildings.

Like Dickens's character Sam Weller, Mr. Weinreb's ``knowledge of London'' is ``extensive and peculiar.'' He looks at the monumental buildings everyone knows - Big Ben, the houses of Parliament, St. Paul's, Selfridges - but his emphasis is on otherwise overlooked keystones, corbels, gates, reliefs, shop fronts, balconies, and front doors. His camera zooms in and out of light and shadow.

If the London his images depict seems unfamiliar, it is because he has an eye for the unfamiliar effect. He has even succeeded in making photographs of some of the decidedly undistinguished grids of glass and steel that characterize office blocks of recent vintage. Some lovers of London have complained these things are ruining the city. But Weinreb is evenhanded. And the commentary supplied by his father, Ben Weinreb, an expert on London, actually discusses the ``all-conquering concrete'' that everyone loves to hate with a reasonable admission of its virtues as well as castigation of its faults.

This is a beautiful book, and as an appreciation of the bricks and stones, the stucco and ironwork, that make the fabric of London what it is, it will not be easy to surpass.

London's architectural history spans centuries and continues to develop in the present. It is not too difficult to encourage us to enjoy the cool dignity of John Nash's Regency terraces, or even the dark brickwork of some Dickensian back-street warehouse, but Weinreb's lens can persuasively indicate the unexpected appeal of the boys' gateway to a school in East London or the crimson glazed terra-cotta blocks of the entrance to Maida Vale Underground Station.

Not that Matthew Weinreb travels by Underground. He is no mole. ``I have lived in London all my life,'' he writes in his foreword, ``... yet I was largely unaware of the sheer wealth of architectural detail to be found.'' He admits to taking many of his photographs ``while wandering through the streets ... alert to an overlooked corbel or decorative frieze.'' His book invites others to wander pleasurably through its pages. Even I feel I know and like London better because of it.

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