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Zoomorphic flights of fancy - what would Pevsner say?


Speaking on national radio on 3 December 1966, Nikolaus Pevsner expressed 'acute discomfort'at the emergence of what he termed 'neoexpressionism', the 'radically original architecture'heralded by Ronchamp and the like. The talk, which is included in full in the new paperback edition of Pevsner on Art and Architecture: the Radio Talks, marked the 30-year anniversary of the publication of Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design: from William Morris to Walter Gropius, and noted the changes in the architectural scene in the interceding years.But it would be no less pertinent if it were written today.The comments on, say, Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building ('What a heritage he has left his successor!

Every cubic foot of this building says 'Rudolph'What can a successor, of different principles and maybe believing in a different routine, do with such a building?') could equally be applied to any number of failed lottery projects that prove too idiosyncratic to be reappropriated for any other use.

For Pevsner, the problem illustrated the 'danger of personality cult and the blessings of modesty, faith in service and certain neutrality'.He grudgingly acknowledged the argument that buildings such as Ronchamp and the Sydney Opera House deserve a more than utilitarian appearance.But this was swiftly countered with his unease at the notion of 'one style for church and concert hall, another for the hotel or hospital, the offices and the flats - one style for Sundays, another for weekdays'- a distinction which is increasingly erroneous now that church-goers are in a minority and most cultural consumption takes place in the home. In any case, he argued, expressionist architecture, as well as being inflexible, is needlessly extravagant and an intrusive means of subjecting innocent parties to the architect's mood.

But by the logic of his own argument, even such a purist as Pevsner may have forgiven (not liked, granted, but forgiven) the extravagant flight of fancy featured on pages 30-39.Designed purely for the architect's weekend use, it is 'Sunday architecture', which does not force its colourful personality on an unsuspecting public - and for which, crucially, the architect picks up the bill.

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