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Capital inheritance

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The Buildings of England: London 6: Westminster By Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner. Yale University Press, 2003. 872pp. £29.95

Nikolaus Pevsner's project to cover the buildings of England by turning out hefty county guides two per year, based on whirlwind visits in the long college vacations, was an impossible plan completed on schedule in 1974. It resulted in a row of 46 dapper little volumes, whose millions of words and thousands of images constitute one of the most remarkable of literary monuments. As is well known, it did not end there. Pevsner managed to inspire others with enthusiasm for the project, with the paradoxical result that the original volumes are one by one becoming relics, replaced by revised editions often several times the size of the parent.

When this happens, Pevsner does not disappear.A surprising proportion of his words and phrases (rather than whole sentences) is loyally preserved in the midst of plentiful new detail. This slotting in of new material on the underlying frame of the old is an extremely moving instance of continuity.

Sometimes the later writer, Simon Bradley in the current bumper volume, straightens out Pevsner's order of ideas in a way that the professor, if there had been time, might have done himself. So in a narrow way, the new, bigger books are true to the old, but they also go far beyond them and at the same time match some of their more precious, perishable qualities.

When I hear people who knew Pevsner well describe him, I sometimes wonder if I have invented the Pevsner I know. For my idea of him begins and ends with a kind of humour that seems to me un-Germanic, quite English, a remarkable case of protective colouring, of adopting the tones of the backdrop you find yourself placed against.Not for me the scientist whom they describe. Not for me either, I suppose, the gruelling stage-bystage descriptions of large Gothic buildings, which may have been the very parts into which Pevsner threw the most passion.

Bradley seems a worthy inheritor in spicing the brew with wit, appropriately unflamboyant. What a shock to find him saying that a new block's faint Classical references are supplied 'in homeopathic quantities'. Here a double-take, before registering that this means 'extremely diluted', not 'a dubious cure'. It is not fair to the texture of the book to draw attention to these darting fires that lighten your way in thickets of detail. They are not meant to be exhibited, but to appear and vanish quickly.

Ofall places in the territory Bradley is covering, Oxford Street must be one of the severest tests. How can anyone take it seriously, or like it as architecture? But Bradley brings it off, bustling through with a swinging energy, which denies the negative influence of the subject. It helps that in the middle he comes to a drastic break in the consistency, Stratford Place, so that here in the commercial maelstrom we get a decorous little 18th-century interlude. His treatment of Selfridge's is a particular triumph, making Gordon Selfridge's schemes appealing without idealising them - no mean feat (see picture left).

The author is broad in his sympathies, finding space to note an early car showroom in Pall Mall, or to mention the presence of dry seaweed for sound insulation in wall cavities at the Dorchester Hotel. One of his best skills is telling complicated histories of public buildings, where commissioning is often protracted and later centuries full of confused alteration. The National Gallery is one of his best. Now I understand features of the spaces there that hundreds of earlier visits had shed no light on. A coded plan plays a key part in this; indeed, the whole volume is well supplied with plans, sometimes so complicated or so small that you may want a magnifying glass.

But I am not inclined to complain about Bradley's mammoth, nearly unencompassable achievement, which will feed you wonderful new lore about the most familiar places and show you why things fit together in the way they do. Sometimes it hinges on now obscured site conditions, sometimes on a forgotten use, and sometimes on the ghostly presence of an architect no one knew was there. John Soane has been detected recently in many Whitehall locations, for instance.

Recent developments are not neglected:

Terry Farrell's Charing Cross gets surprisingly high marks; Venturi's gallery extension is scrupulously examined; and the tube station under Michael Hopkins' Portcullis House is memorably rendered - an extra bonus to learn of archaeological finds in the digging.

Questions you did not know you had are answered here, and a new generation of sleuths is invited on to new trails. How long will it be before someone rises to the challenge of those 'possible central European Rococo imports' on page 464? Who will be the first to pin them to their Bohemian origins and trace the tricky route to London?

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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