Remembering a Giant of Architecture: Nikolaus Pevsner, Part 1
The study of architecture is a rare bird, requiring a bizarre, hybrid knowledge of painting, vernacular design, engineering, history, historiography, and more. If art history is itself a relatively young discipline, than architectural studies is itself a spring chick. Men and women have been building, designing, and destroying buildings for millennia, yet they have not been systematically studying them in the academy for all that long. Architectural history once resided in practical treatises and the enacted writings of a select group of renaissance humanists. Put simply, architecture just wasn't seen as an object worthy of sustained, devoted study, as, say, Milton or Plato surely were.
Nikolaus Pevsner made extreme strides toward legitimizing architecture within the broader currents of European history. Thanks to his efforts, architecture was transported from a gentleman's pursuit to a thing that was both worthy of serious attention and, strangely, accessible (and even desirable) to virtually any curious party. I wish to draw attention to Pevsner's unique achievements and, in the process, hopefully help others find a way to investigate his fascinating body of work.
Pevsner was born in 1902 in Leipzig to a Jewish merchant family. He showed much aptitude for scholastics at an early age, and would come to the study of art history at several universities in Germany. Like another famous Jewish expatriate - eminent theorist Walter Benjamin - Pevsner wrote his dissertation of the German Baroque, a fascinating and mystical stylistic practice that surely pointed toward his later eye for identifying embellishment. He taught at Gottingen University from 1929-1933, but like many, fled the Nazi regime before its utter stranglehold.
Pevsner relocated in England, which informed his sensibilities through and through. England had a relatively diverse complement of buildings and styles, yet had always been somewhat obscured by famous continental works. Since England was generally out of step with continental fashion, it proved fitting that a man of wide experience and deep knowledge would bring his eye to bear on a land of idiosyncrasy, fantasy, and conflicted tradition.
Pevsner was a practicing academic for the most of the rest of his life, splitting time between writing and teaching. Though much of his work was ground-breaking in his day, he is seldom acknowledged in current scholarship. Methodology changes. My second post will focus on his books, the shear number of which are nearly unbelievable. Needless to say, he seemed to never have wasted a moment.
Some links, to tide until Part 2:
Transcribed lecture on Pevsner the man
A Pevsner Hub