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Pocket-sized series makes history live

BOOKS

I doubt there is anyone among us who has not bought one of those small square architecture guides to cities (aj 9.4.98). Truly pocket-sized, inexpensive, sufficiently informative, they are a triumph of form meeting content. Now, from that same clever publisher 'ellipsis', comes an identically formatted series on the history of architecture in an eventual 25 volumes. One's initial scepticism notwithstanding, the ingratiating format which makes so much sense for guides on cities serves this series surprisingly well, and even becomes a welcome retort to a trend in architectural publishing for expensive, lavish books where production values often supersede editorial ones.

Each volume in the series is written by Christopher Tadgell, who teaches architectural history at Kent Institute of Art and Design. Here he has chosen to present seminal traditions (not exclusively western) in a strictly chronological way, with a well-balanced view of history which includes technical, social and cultural developments and their effect.

Volume one, for instance, begins with nomadic structures and the earliest settlements in the Jordan valley; it leads us through the turgid cosmologies of the first civilisations to illustrate ancient culture's heterogeneity but also the concurrence of society and architecture, insisting on the significance of form as symbolic, pragmatic, and ideological. While the second chapter asserts the derivation of form from building technology based on locale, Tadgell deftly avoids the issue of whether distinctions derive from or define their societies. Mesopotamian architecture, for instance, was relatively organic, based on the mud brick and an arcuated system, while Egyptian was more orthogonal, derived from the timber and reeds of the marshes and thus trabeated. The properties of the local materials also dictated the approach to embellishment: Mesopotamian was surface- oriented, Egyptian architectonic.

A friend of mine used to carry with him the 90p Penguin edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, revelling in the pulp-fiction assumption behind its condensation, but also finally reading it. Similarly, I would give a copy of almost any volume in this series to someone who is interested in architecture or architectural history but needs it in bite-sized bits. For these books are hospitable to an interested public while scholarly enough to remind us of something we once were taught. What's more, buying from the series is certainly less onerous and more likely than searching out the best book on each period. The three years that it will take for the series to appear, and the implicit invitation that you can pick-and- choose, ameliorate the arithmetic that 25 volumes at £8 each equals £200.

The first five volumes progress through Hellenic Classicism and Roman architecture to take in non-Western traditions, namely India and South- east Asia, and will be followed in the autumn by volumes on Islamic architecture, China, Japan, and the Romanesque. Each one contains numerous colour photographs and line drawings (maps, floor plans, axonometrics) as well as a useful glossary and extensive bibliography. Here the format is simply pragmatic in keeping costs down in a series with a lot of colour and relatively small press runs. More problematic is that the small size of the page means one necessarily has to skip sometimes pages of text for the sake of illustrations, which leaves one flipping back and forth a lot. They are well printed, though the photographs are too yellow.

Given the narrative structure, balanced prose (neither pretentious nor simplistic) and physical format, this series is a worthy attempt to make architectural history accessible and even relevant. It might thus serve to introduce an unexposed public to the subject, or refresh our memories about things which once seemed so astonishing. One could certainly do worse than have a volume in one's pocket when on the tube or train.

Steven Spier teaches at South Bank University

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