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Pevsner - Building a new identity

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Two books on Nikolaus Pevsner illustrate how England’s most famous chronicler of its towns and cities adopted the architecture of his new homeland, writes Steve Parnell

Pevsner – The Early Life: Germany and Art, by Stephen Games, Continuum, March 2010, £20
Visual Planning and the Picturesque, by Nikolaus Pevsner and Mathew Aitchison, Getty, May 2010, £21.95 Pevsner

In 1942, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, owner of the Architectural Press, which at that time published the AR and the AJ, commissioned Nikolaus Pevsner to write a book on town planning and the picturesque. In 1983, the year that Pevsner died, Stephen Games signed a contract to write a biography of our treasured architectural historian.

The thing that unites the previous two sentences, apart from Pevsner, is the fact that both these books have finally just been published. Games’ is the first part of his biography, dealing with the time up until Pevsner leaves Germany for England in 1933, while Pevsner’s unfinished book has been dug out of the archives at the Getty Institute in Los Angeles and speculatively completed by Matthew Aitchison.

Unsurprisingly, Games’ biography focuses on Pevsner’s development as that fastidious and industrious person and art historian that we all envisage, with all the influences entailed. This early life concludes with the beginnings of his interests in England and architecture. Games attracted some controversy in 2002 when he published Pevsner on Art and Architecture, a collection of Pevsner’s radio talks to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Games’ introduction, which was effectively a preview of this volume of the biography, was exploited with sensational headlines (for the world of art history) to the effect that Pevsner was, in fact, a Nazi. Games, however, only goes as far as to present strong evidence to support the fact that Pevsner was originally a supporter of Hitler, and even more so of Goebbels. A dangerous cocktail of an all-pervasive belief in the Geistesgeschichte mixed with an overcompensation for his lack of original Aryan blood resulted in an overdose of pre-war nationalism. One could argue that it was the same myopically focused drive that would lead him to later out-English even the English. As Games concludes, Pevsner had to decide ‘whether he preferred to be an unwanted German in England, or an unwanted Jew in Germany?’. He could never be accused of doing things by halves so it is puzzling that Visual Planning was never published until now.

In the same way that he constructed a genealogy from William Morris to Walter Gropius in Pioneers of Modern Design – thought out at the end of his time in Germany but published in 1936 – Pevsner constructs a teleological lineage from Henry Wotton to Hugh Casson in Visual Planning. Games argues that the reason Pioneers of Modern Design concludes with Gropius is due to a desire to show that culturally, the 20th century was destined to be a German victory (Le Corbusier proposed France).

With Visual Planning, Pevsner engaged with English institutions, and he could equally have been looking to claim an English victory for town planning, but his conclusion is projective about town planning’s direction, rather than a history of what actually happened. He claims there is something peculiarly English (rather than British) about the picturesque in the same way as there is with laissez-faire economics and the unwritten constitution. Visual Planning is therefore a theory of town planning created by applying the picturesque to the urban condition.

The idea behind Visual Planning was Hastings’ and it formed part of the AR’s visual re-education campaigns that were announced in January 1947 (see my Back Issues column, AJ 08.11.07) and continued through Townscape, Outrage, Manplan and Civilia.

It was perhaps this lack of ownership, along with the mountain of other commitments that Pevsner was accruing, that meant Visual Planning forever lay in the background – as the introduction states: ‘Pevsner seems to have used the pseudonym Peter FR Donner when he was more than usually following Hastings’ instruction.’

If this book had been published when originally intended, it would have added ‘planner’ to Pevsner’s many guises, but the problem of basing planning on merely the visual is that the discipline inherently requires more than stylistic categorisation so beloved of art historians.

I was hoping that a simultaneous reading of his biography and unpublished work would throw some light upon why Visual Planning and the Picturesque was never published, but this will have to wait for the next volume. The Early Life is densely researched and surprisingly easy to read, but this volume will be of more interest to art historians and rigorous historiographers than architects or historians per se. Visual Planning is worth reading for the 33-page introduction more than anything. The three quite distinct parts of the revealed book show Pevsner as guide, historian and critic and will be of interest to hardy architectural historians, although the cinematic passage of the first part’s pictures are a treat in themselves.

Two more worthy tomes to add to the growing pile of Pevsnerology, with more to come next year.

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