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Pevsner and his place in 20th century history

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

The V&A's conference on Pevsner's place at the centre of 20th-century English architectural history offered interesting insights into the man's work and outlook, but was disappointing insofar as it did not elaborate on the impact his magnum opus has on current attitudes to new architecture in this country.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Buildings of England series, the conference brought together a number of respected architectural historians, including Susan Harries (author of a definitive, soon-to-be-published biography of Pevsner), John Newman and Bridget Cherry, consultant editor and editor respectively of the series in its current form. It was Newman who underlined the importance of the 'analysis and definition of styles', as being 'very much at the core' of Pevsner's thinking. He also dwelled on the writer's frustration with the emerging scholarship on Victorian architectural history over the way that 'style analysis was bedevilled by the imitation of past styles'.

As Cherry pointed out, Pevsner very rarely viewed the interiors of the buildings he visited, or even discussed them in terms of the way they relate to their external form and composition. For an out-and-out Modernist who had a deep antipathy towards ornament and decoration, this seems very odd. But, essentially, he took a strictly visual approach to architecture, emphasising style and aesthetics over spatial organisation and cultural context - which points to his background in art history. According to Harris, he was 'really an Italian specialist' and a reluctant arrival when he came to this country after Hitler's rise to power.He tried to get jobs in Italy, Dublin and America before resigning himself to his lot in England, a country where he felt 'very much an alien', and 'nobody ever said what they meant'.He was also resented as a 'thrusting foreigner' in a culture where 'only uneducated people show off their knowledge'.

Pevsner's '50 list', which provided the basis of the first schedule of between-the-wars buildings to be placed on the statutory list, was very much founded in this aesthetic approach. Among the buildings he most admired were Impington College, which he regarded as an ideal expression of 20th century style, where the influence of the English Picturesque tradition and the use of brick had resulted in a humanising of form. He was not so keen on the Isokon flats, which he considered 'forbidding' in their relation to the street, and the Hoover factory was dismissed as 'an atrocity'. Battersea Power Station, modern-day cause celebre, was included only on his C list, as was the RIBA HQ which he designated as 'very doubtful.'Nevertheless, this latter ended up on the final schedule.

What this says about the Institute's relationship - and that of the profession - with Pevsner, must, however, remain open to discussion.

Pevsner's 'The Buildings of England: 50th Anniversary conference' was organised by the V&A in association with Pevsner Architectural Guides and the Buildings Books Trust

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