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Growing in stature

review

Stirling and Central Scotland By John Gifford and Frank Arneil Walker.

Yale University Press, 2002. 852pp. £29.95

This is the latest Pevsner - though, like many of its companion volumes, Sir Nikolaus did not write it. Informally, they have always been called Pevsners but now, since Yale University Press took over from Penguin as publisher of the Buildings of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales series, the founder's name has been brought to the fore and the books are officially the Pevsner Architectural Guides (www. pevsner. co. uk).

This is as it should be. Along with his fellow German refugees Ernst Gombrich and Rudolph Wittkower, Pevsner brought academic rigour to art and architectural history in Britain from the mid-1930s and, in the guidebook field, his Buildings of England series effectively replaced that sort of quasi-Victorian guide that concentrates on the Medieval parish church and the seventh Earl's wooden leg.

The volumes were much smaller then but Pevsner's record of writing 32 of them by himself, starting in the early 1950s at the astonishing rate of two a year, still sends shivers down many an academic spine. He would set off in a borrowed car ('Is there a chance of a car?' he wrote to his publisher, Allen Lane, in 1948. 'The application for petrol has to be made soon'), see scores of buildings each day, and write up his notes into a first draft in his hotel room the same evening.

This speed lent his prose an engaging freshness and vigour and his guides became familiar and indispensable. But even history does not stand still. By 1977, Pevsner could be given a drubbing by his former pupil, David Watkin, for his progressivist 'Zeitgeist-worship', and - as if being a supporter of Modernism wasn't bad enough - Stephen Games has now suggested that Pevsner, the Jewish émigré, was once a supporter of the Nazis too (AJ 9.1.03).

One way or another, then, Pevsner is a hard act to follow. This volume retains the now standard introductory contributions by specialists on aspects of geology, history and building type. The heart of the guide, the gazetteer, follows. Here, a series of small areas is subdivided into detailed descriptions of public buildings and more general, walking surveys of everything else. There is a first-class glossary and comprehensive indexes of artists and places.

In David Breeze's essay on the Romans, it comes as a surprise to be reminded of the effort their empire made in erecting the 50 miles or so of the Antonine wall for such a short period of service - about 20 years. It places in perspective what might otherwise seem rather depressing gazetteer entries, such as the disuse, since 1989, of the Scottish National Institution for the Training of Imbecile Children at Larbert, built to designs by the great maverick Gothic architect, Francis Pilkington in 1862.

Putting to one side any comment on the mix of politics and accountancy that resulted in this sort of closure, the 'redevelopments' that resulted leave one with the dispiriting feeling that things are getting worse rather than better. For example, at Bannockburn where, as every Scottish child knows, Robert the Bruce and his men repulsed numerically superior English invaders in 1314, we find that now 'the heart of the town has been brutally assaulted' using architectural forces (but we thought they were friendly).

And if it is not the architects, it is the weather.An entry for St Margaret's church in Clydebank by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia - 'wonderfully understated, particularly dramatic' - also carries the sobering censure that 'constructional inadequacies have led to repeated flooding'. But it is not all doom and gloom. At the southern end of Loch Lomond, Balloch, Page and Park's visitor centre has 'memorably marked the millennial moment' using a presumably robust Iron Age precedent - the broch.

The language of the genre is of a particular sort. It describes a special world of segmental pediments, moulded nosings and lugged doorpieces where, at any moment, one might be startled by blind oculi in the tympanum. Taken with the fact that there are too few drawings (100 years ago MacGibbon and Ross illustrated almost every page of their classic studies), and that the photographs are quaintly grouped together in the middle of the book (just as they would have been 100 years ago), one begins to wonder who Pevsners are for these days.

In the 1950s one imagines the answer would have been a man with a trilby and a pipe pointing out hood-moulded windows and polished ashlar to his children (peaceably sharing the back seat of the car, no doubt). But times have changed and Pevsners have changed with them. As other, fully illustrated, architectural guides have taken the role of pocket companion, Pevsners have grown in size and stature. In the process they have matured into something completely authoritative, slightly quaint and (ironically enough) peculiarly British.

Charles Rattray teaches architecture at the Robert Gordon University

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