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BOOK

REVIEW - Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius By Nikolaus Pevsner.Yale, 2005. 192pp. £19.95

For most of us, Nikolaus Pevsner will forever be associated with The Buildings of England - a triumph of persistent scholarship whose appraisals still delight with their precision and pungency. His other popular legacy - Pioneers of Modern Design - now makes a welcome reappearance, with the austere Pelican paperback giving way to this all-singing/ all-dancing Yale version (with an introduction by Richard Weston). It seems not so much the return of an old friend as the arrival of an exotic guest.

Pioneers was fi rst published in 1936, with later editions in 1949 and 1960. So how well has it weathered? There's no mistaking the conviction of Pevsner's central thesis that 'the new style, the genuine and legitimate style of the century' was in place by 1914.

His argument that Modernism evolved as the result of three streams - the social theories of William Morris, the work of 19th-century engineers and the fluid experimentation of the Art Nouveau movement - may have been exploited by subsequent commentators, but there is something very accessible in an approach that celebrates design heroes as servants of the zeitgeist.

You can disagree with Pevsner on the membership of his pantheon. What is beyond dispute is that he 'connected the apparently unconnected in startling ways', as Weston deftly puts it in his introduction.

Ranking Gropius and Meyer's Fagus Factory of 1911 alongside La Sainte-Chapelle and the choir of Beauvais is typical of Pevsner's sweeping strokes in Pioneers, but when he came to reassess the progress of Modernism for the 1960 edition, he could see no way forward, only 'an escape out of reality to a fairy world' by the architects of the day. There are also, in retrospect, surprising gaps. His argument that the fundamentals of Modernism were all in place by 1914 left no room for an appreciation of Expressionism or the later organic school - Aalto and Scharoun simply don't fit his austere canon.

Even these gripes cannot diminish the achievement.

Adding colour has brought an immediacy and presence to artefacts that had hitherto languished as black-and-white illustrations in the earlier editions, and the presentation is much more spacious and sumptuous. Less convincing are the interleaved explanatory texts, offering mini-briefings on designers and movements.

The effect is of two separate books colliding at speed, with the historian's lucid prose giving way to matter-of-fact treatments that would be more at home on a website.

And so to the 'Notes'.

Pevsner being Pevsner, these prove to be a real delight.

Almost conversational in tone, they are full of academic asides and trails followed up with the heroes themselves, including the ultimate authority of 'letter of W Gropius to the author'. They remind us that here was no dry dissector of men and movements but a historian who wrote with passion about buildings and their creators that he knew well at first hand.

Neil Parkyn is a London-based architect and writer on design

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