Reading revised editions of the Buildings of England is always fascinating. It is possible to see, in great detail, how one small part of the country has changed and how, with new information and new interpretations, perceptions about the past have evolved.
This edition on North-West and South Norfolk, replacing that of 1962, reveals that changes in the county have been great, and not particularly kind, in the intervening years. Many buildings worthy of description have been demolished and, as author Bill Wilson points out, these losses continue.
But recent destruction of Norfolk's built history fades into insignificance when compared with the activities of Norfolk's city fathers and their professional advisors in the post-war period. The statistics quoted by Wilson make chilling reading. In 1939 Great Yarmouth retained 145 historic rows - the network of alleys which gave the town its distinct character. Thanks largely to the attentions of the borough engineer after the war, only two rows are now recognizable. In King's Lynn, between 1962 and 1971, a fifth of the town's historic buildings were destroyed 'in favour of barren new streets and shopping centres'.
What replaced these lost historic buildings was, as Wilson makes clear, often 'grisly' - particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. But for the Norfolk architecture of the 1980s and 1990s he displays a surprising affection, and municipal architecture after 1975 he thinks 'altogether excellent'.
Norfolk is a county in which post-war public housing has had huge consequences, both socially and physically. King's Lynn and Thetford became overspill towns for London, with vast and soulless estates swamping whole quarters of these historic towns. But Wilson likes the vernacular-style rural public housing pioneered by Taylor and Green at Loddon in the early 1950s. Continued by Feilden and Mawson at Friar's Quay, Norwich, in 1976 and, in the same year, by David Summers at Great Snoring, this has become something of an East Anglian speciality.
The changing architectural tastes of the times are captured most clearly by the coverage given to Alison and Peter Smithson's school at Hunstanton. In the 1962 edition Pevsner treated it with great caution. The uncompromising proto-Brutalist building (completed in 1974) had aleady started to develop faults but these Pevsner - a man committed to Modernism - managed to avoid mentioning directly. He merely questioned 'whether a central space and open-tread staircases are functionally the right thing for the bustle of a school', and wondered if the exposed brick and steel frame, though admirably honest, were 'perhaps a little austere for the children'.
These observations are among Pevsner's most memorable understatements, as confirmed by Wilson's comments on the same building which, he observes, 'has bequeathed a maintenance headache in a class of its own.' The most famous problem concerns the windows. Their glass was originally set directly in the steel frame of the building, not in sub-frames, so that when the steel frame moved (in its entire welded length there are just two expansion joints), or corroded on its exposed site, they just fell out or shattered.
As well as much perceptive criticism of twentieth century Norfolk architecture, this volume includes a wealth of new material on historic properties. Particularly useful are the additions on vernacular buildings which represent research, much of it undertaken by Wilson himself, since the first edition was published. This book maintains the incredibly high standards set by the series of revised editions and is a credit to all involved.
Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian