By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Historical connections

Dictionary of Architecture by James Stevens Curl. Oxford University Press, 1999. 833pp. £25

Dictionaries, Dr Johnson's excepted, are not supposed to be fascinating, only useful. The problem with James Stevens Curl's chunky achievement is that it is both. For a weekend I have been flipping through its 833 pages, led from one suggestive entry to another by an oddly compulsive system of asterisked words. From Russian Constructivism of c1920 the links flow through Bauhaus, Melnikov, El Lissitzky and Brinkman to, inevitably, 'Rogers of Riverside, Richard George, The Lord'. Not that the trail ends there. It moves back to Viollet-le-Duc and A W N Pugin, then forward again to Deconstructivism and Zaha Hadid.

None of the complexities in this tidal wave of amusing facts ever becomes confusing because Curl's prose has a limpid clarity as well as a keen line in memorable aphorisms. Deconstructivism for instance: 'subverting from the core, rather than attacking from the perimeter'. He even makes perfect sense of James Stirling, after an asterisk leading to his guru, Colin Rowe, who approved design by eclectic collage, 'as a method for using things and simultaneously disbelieving in them'.

A refreshing note of well-informed malice enlivens every major entry, but this is made acceptable by an open warmth of praise and personal preference that Curl never troubles to conceal. Leon Krier, in a wonderfully compressed entry with asterisks pointing out all over the dictionary, is seen as the foe of the Athens Charter, ciam, Archigram, Metabolism and Post-Modernism but 'among his most ravishing visions is his version of Pliny's villa (1982)'.

Perhaps the most startling re-appraisal that I have discovered to date is on Albert Speer, who 'carried out the most ambitious and vast construction programme since the Roman Empire'. The demolition of his Chancellery in Berlin - 'stability, opulence and power' - must be one of the twentieth- century's tragic architectural losses, but there is compensation at hand. 'He remodelled the interior of the German Embassy in Nash's Carlton House Terrace, London, at the same period: his work there (since 1967 the Royal Society) survives virtually intact.' Does the Royal Society appreciate its good fortune?

Curl is as challenging about past architects as present ones. Johann Kuchel, he believes, should receive much of the credit for the Vierzehnheiligenkirche usually given to Balthasar Neumann; and Michelozzo's debt to the Roman Temple of Minerva Medica is exquisitely impressed by a simple line drawing of the east end of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence superimposed upon it. In another completely convincing illustration, the derivation of the Greek Corinthian order from the Egyptian Palm capital is conveyed effortlessly. There is, of course, a crystal-clear description of every possible detail of Classical and Gothic buildings, including the 32 different bonds in which you can lay bricks.

Reviewers are expected to make minor complaints. Was it worth including Walter Brierley for one house noticed by Muthesius and missing out every architect - Richard Shackleton Pope, Charles Dyer, Thomas Foster and Charles Underwood - who created Bristol's Clifton in the early nineteenth-century? 'Caroline', should be of Charles I's reign and 'Carolean' of Charles II; not used indiscriminately. Also while 'Curl' did not appear between items 'curb-roof' and 'curtail', a Bishop Walter Curl (1575-1647) did get slipped in quite gratuitously as a very minor patron of Inigo Jones.

Timothy Mowl is an architectural historian

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters