Writing about Buildings: Nikolaus Pevsner, Part II
Nikolaus Pevsner remains known to us because of his life in publishing. Many architects publish works of theory and history as a compliment to their building careers. Famously, Robert Venturi and his retinue were able to muster support for their brand of what was to become known as postmodernism by way of their lauded study Learning From Las Vegas
(1972, subsequently revised).
Pevsner was not a practicing architect as such, but rather imparted enthusiasm through his passion for buildings into teaching and writing. While not quite a "popularizer" of architecture, he was definitely a spokesperson for several movements or impulses. An Outline of European Architecture
(1943, though later revised and updated about as many times as The Bible) and The Sources of Modern Design
(this also has many editions) are his most famous survey works. An Outline of European Architecture
is a standard, general text in the history of Western buildings and is an outstanding example of Pevsner's ability to synthesize the general - the totatlity of the Western architectural experience - with the specific - an exploration of how specific techniques and materials combine to make each building a unique entity within several larger ordering systems. His work on Modern Design (also in Pioneers of Modern Design
) shows his avowed interest for what were then the buildings of the contemporary vanguard. He has been criticized for his once-held view that the generation of ultra-modern architects who thrived during his study - Le Corbusier, the designers at the Bauhaus, etc - were the logical "end point" to the evolution of architecture...in short that "Modern" architecture was almost the last possible word in building design. The thesis remains fascinating.
Major, individual volumes aside, Pevsner's name will forever be attached to his particular series of "Architectural Guides." In 1951, he began his exhaustive history and guide to English buildings backed by Penguin books. Though still a practicing academic, he took trips throughout the entire isles and likely saw more buildings than anybody else of his day. His guides provide minute details and informed opinion on all manner of building - landmark, vernacular, or new - in a given geographical range.
My own experience is primarily with his volume on Cambridgeshire. During the Summer of 2004, I was a student at Christ's college in central Cambridge and was totally surrounded by interesting buildings. Pevsner's guide, though at that time slightly out of date, was an incredibly useful way of orienting myself to the city. I was able to learn all manner of arcane facts about the colleges and commercial spaces of the city.
is unbelievable. A new generation of scholars has continued his chronicle of the buildings of England. Thanks to Yale University Press, we can keep abreast of their work.