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Keeping the peace

review - Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner Edited by Peter Draper. Ashgate, 2004. 262pp. £55

Nikolaus Pevsner was reassessed in 1977 when David Watkin, his former doctoral student, published Morality and Architecture. Even those who have never read the book will know that the first half, reviewing architectural theory after Pugin, is merely the prelude to an extended critique of Pevsner's work. Basing his argument on Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism, Watkin's main complaint is that Pevsner greatly exaggerated the importance of the zeitgeist or spirit of the age, with the result that his judgement in certain areas became unreliable, and his master narratives over-selective in favour of a progressive view of Modernism.

While a number of the contributors to Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner, the papers of a Birkbeck College conference in 2002 (AJ 25.7.02), refer in passing to Watkin's work, and Timothy Mowl's more recent restatement of it, none of them has chosen to confront these revisionists head on. This evasion was no doubt intended to minimise the significance of these rude disturbers of the academic peace, who during the interval between the conference and the book have been joined by shock-horror revelations from Stephen Games of Pevsner's early enthusiasm for National Socialism. In a more jocular vein, John Harris' two volumes of memoirs have raised doubts about the supposed completeness of the Buildings of England by pointing out some of the major country houses that Pevsner failed to record.

To question Pevsner today, regardless of the reason, is to risk being associated with his most notorious critics, and this has created a protective shell around him that has become a disadvantage. It is time to break it, and Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner really needed an essay called 'Reassessing Morality and Architecture', that instead of demonising Watkin would accept the limitations of zeitgeist-based history, while recalling that even Popper did not say that the zeitgeist was meaningless - merely that it could not be used as a predictive or evaluative device.

Similarly, when it is repeatedly stated by Pevsner's attackers and defenders alike that he was a doctrinaire proponent of Bauhaus Modernism, it would have been useful to have examined the evidence more closely, even from the published texts, for this contentious area was curiously neglected in the conference. The long unpublished text he wrote in 1939 on British modern architecture, intended for a special issue of The Architectural Review, shows Pevsner to be one of the most pluralistic and open-minded critics of the time, even though he was often more rigid later on. The chopped-up nature of a conference was least able to take a long view of his changes of mind over time.

The absence on the part of most of the contributors of cross-referenced knowledge of the whole body of Pevsner's work is one reason why the book is not so much a reassessment as a set of topics, albeit reflecting valuable insights from specialised perspectives.

Those by Ian Christie and Andrew Causey, a film historian and art historian respectively, both on the vexed topic of Englishness, offer the best contextual readings. The architectural historians, with the exception of Nicola Coldstream, still seem by contrast too preoccupied with defending their father figure against real or imagined attacks to be able to estimate his stature in the broader landscape.

Basing themselves on the falsely exaggerated notion of Pevsner as a doctrinaire Modernist, they express too much surprise about his enthusiasms for Picturesque and for Victorian architecture, underestimating at the same time the extent to which these shifts in taste were significant currents by which Pevsner allowed himself to be carried.

I would also take issue with Adrian Forty's emphasis on Pevsner's 'democratic' way of writing - not because the observation is untrue, but because, if it is tested against John Summerson, James Lees-Milne, H S Goodhart-Rendel, Kenneth Clark and Christopher Hussey, to name some significant contemporaries, one discovers that each of them had the same ability, if not a greater one, to describe complex buildings and ideas in clear and accessible language. It must have been part of the zeitgeist, reflecting the way that English architectural writing was never, primarily, an academic activity but was addressed to the general reader.

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