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North points

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review - The Buildings of England - Lancashire: Manchester and the South East Clare Hartwell, Matthew Hyde and Nikolaus Pevsner. Yale University Press, 2005. £29.95

Most reviewers of the latest editions of The Buildings of England can do little more than bring the publication to readers' attention.

Beyond quibbling over questions of detail or emphasis, these volumes continue to deserve their rightful place as 'the greatest endeavour of popular architectural scholarship in the world'. The only other option is to adopt a considered alternative position to the value of such scholarship. As one of the small team of contributors to this volume, it would be hypocritical for me to be anything other than a supporter. Pevsner is a tough act to follow.

However, when his original two-volume work on Lancashire was published in 1969, he wrote that 'South Lancashire is the most difficult area I have ever had to describe.' Beyond its sheer size, it is easy to see why.

Pevsner's Lancashire I - tellingly subtitled 'The industrial and commercial south' - was dedicated to the Victorian Society, then only 11 years old. It was an appropriate dedication, as the serious study of Victorian architecture was still in its infancy. Pevsner went on to write that his introduction 'in complete contrast to those of any of the volumes so far published, is very largely a Victorian introduction'.

The present authors, though they see the same dominance, also see 'an almost total transformation' of the area, which is more than enough justification for this new edition. In the first of a three-volume replacement, Hartwell and Hyde are on safer ground in characterising the region geographically rather than by building function, but then this is part of the region's transformation over the last 35 years - from Coronation Street to Cold Feet.

The difference in definition reflects the unquestioning acceptance of the works of industry and commerce as a staple of architectural history today. Beyond this acceptance, one of the glories of the new work is the attention paid to the 16thcentury and 17th-century domestic architecture whose halls still stand proud in the blasted post-industrial landscape like the ghosts of Christmas past.

The authors have taken into account not only the latest scholarship, but also the changing values of what is now considered our cultural patrimony. Hence a lowly tin tabernacle at Newton Heath is worthy of comment, alongside the more usual suspects such as Manchester Town Hall.

Manchester necessarily dominates the region physically and psychologically - but this volume reminds us that it wasn't always so. If the town halls of Manchester, Bolton, Rochdale and Lancashire's other Victorian towns vie with one another in terms of their municipal ambition, their hinterlands reveal the earlier transformation of the country from an agricultural to an industrial nation.

Most revisions of Pevsner are faced with the challenge of the architecture of the postwar years, the work which was still being built as Pevsner researched his original volumes in 1967 and which he regretted being unable to consider.

Figures such as the often-reviled Richard Seifert clearly impress the authors with the same kind of audacity as the Victorian discoveries of over 30 years ago impressed Pevsner. 'The landmark of Blackley is completely out of scale as well as out of place in its sophistication, ' they write of Seifert's Hexagon Tower (1971).

The cover illustrations portray other stark dichotomies which span the centuries.

On the front is Prickshaw, an 18th-century fold of terraced workers' houses set in the landscape they are built from. To the rear is Libeskind's Imperial War Museum. The distance between reminds us that this is not only the Lancashire of The League of Gentlemen, but also Queer as Folk.

However, updating and revising Pevsner is not purely a maintenance exercise like painting the Forth Rail Bridge. There is a serious heritage here, not only of scholarship but of writing. These are not merely a collection of summaries akin to listed building descriptions, but sensitive sketches that capture the essence of a building or place.

Thus the cottages at Summerseat are 'mercilessly restored', Victoria Baths is 'exuberant in stripped red Ruabon brick and pale yellow terracotta, making it look like a large friendly humbug', and a comment on Anthony Grimshaw's new work at St Nicholas, Burnage, says: 'In steep pens in front of it, like coconuts at a shy, sit the choir and organist.' Ultimately the new authors should take the greatest satisfaction from knowing that they have succeeded in a region Pevsner himself found so hard to describe.

Julian Holder is an architectural historian

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