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A talent to provoke

People: In his role as an architectural historian, Timothy Mowl doesn't want to be typecast. His writing on a wide range of subjects now includes a reassessment of John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner by andrew mead. photograph by stephen morris

Architectural historians, like many academics, often seem happy to limit their horizons. Having once found a niche - within a century, a movement, or a style - they set up camp there, as if specialisation was synonymous with scholarship. So argues the Bristol-based lecturer and prolific author, Timothy Mowl. He wants to do something different.

His dozen or more books since 1985 (some written with fellow historian Brian Earnshaw) range widely across the eighteenth century but also beyond. They include studies of John Wood, Horace Walpole and William Beckford; the story of Classicism under the Commonwealth; a provocative appreciation of Irish Rococo (as opposed to English Palladianism); and polemics against new development in Bath and Cheltenham. Now, with Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman versus Pevsner, Mowl steps firmly into the twentieth century, examining the very different attitudes to architecture of his two protagonists, and their mutedly hostile relationship.

The book's origins lie as far back as Mowl's 1950s childhood in the Berkshire village of Wantage, where his next-door neighbours were the Betjemans. 'I have vague memories of John walking the streets in an old gabardine,' says Mowl. 'I wish I could remember more. But I've felt a connection with him ever since. He's always been a great hero of mine.'

It was I-Spy books that introduced Mowl to architecture - 'I used to go church-crawling with them as a boy' - but it only crystallised as a possible vocation while he studied for an ma in fine arts and literature at Birmingham University. Mowl went on to take his doctorate in architectural history at St John's College, Oxford, where his supervisor was Sir Howard Colvin. In what now seems a premonition of his later fondness for revisionist subjects, Mowl researched 'The Norman Revival in British Architecture'. Colvin told him that his writing style was 'a little too florid, it should be lapidary' - advice that, in his entertaining books, Mowl hasn't altogether heeded.

After Oxford, and a year with English Heritage, Mowl's working life has combined teaching - he's been a research fellow at Bristol University for the last nine years - with consultancy and, of course, writing. 'I've got very strong views about things, which is why I write and why I teach,' he declares. 'But I also love the challenge of research, the digging around that you have to do for any book.'

Mowl was the Georgian Group's regional representative for a decade, while other conservation-linked responsibilities include his role as president of Cheltenham Civic Society. 'I didn't want to be some old buffer who did nothing, I wanted to be active,' he says. He wrote Cheltenham Betrayed in 1995, which in part was meant to sink a grandiose development plan then pending - and it did. 'The scheme was dead overnight. These polemics work. But you have to stay vigilant.'

Stylistic Cold Wars, Mowl's new book, tackles conservation and development in post-war Britain by studying two central figures in our architectural culture: Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner. Though he tries to be even-handed there is no doubt where Mowl's sympathies lie. Pevsner, his taste too determined by the Bauhaus, was 'happy to see the country fill up with neutral buildings'. With his tacit approval, 'terrible damage was done, visually and socially, to the towns and cities of his adopted country, largely in the name of the Modern Movement.' Betjeman, on the other hand - through his Shell Guides, poems, journalism, and television programmes - 'raised the nation's level of visual sophistication by several points'. He'd be the ideal 'patron saint of the environment'.

'The whole Buildings of England series would have been better if Pevsner had let the natives take over,' says Mowl. What he appreciates in Betjeman is his 'provincial-ism', his eye for 'the poetry of the ordinary'; and here, in the influence that he had on Betjeman, a third figure becomes crucial - the painter, photographer and writer John Piper. 'He enjoyed vulgarity, he could see beauty almost anywhere.'

But with such inclusive tastes, such readiness to find beauty or merit in existing buildings, what place is there for something new? Mowl takes the point. 'For a long time I had no real sympathy with Modernist architecture, but I have become more open-minded.' He is excited by Grimshaw's new Bath Spa building, rates Foster, Chris Wilkinson and the Hampshire schools of Colin Stansfield Smith. 'It's Stirling who's been the big disaster. There's nothing of his that's worth looking at.'

At the beginning of Stylistic Cold Wars, Mowl writes: 'During our trips of despair to watch Bristol City, my son Adam was always encouraging as our attention understand-ably drifted from the action on the pitch to our ongoing projects.' For him these include a new full-time post as course director of an ma in garden history at Bristol University.

As for other books, he would love to write a biography of the architectural critic and polemicist Ian Nairn ('he really brought buildings alive'). On his old home ground of the eighteenth century: 'I would like to take a sceptical look at Robert Adam. He's basically just an interior decorator. That repertoire of motifs used over and over again. Today he'd be perfect for a 'make-over' show on tv.'

Not a recipe for critical acclaim, perhaps, but Mowl doesn't mind. 'I don't want to have the last word on anything,' he adds. 'I just want to make people think.'

Stylistic Cold Wars is published by John Murray (£14.99)

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