Pevsner and the Picturesque
Pevsner has been caricatured by the less perceptive of his critics as a rigid prophet of modernism, somehow indirectly responsible for every soulless estate, every multi-storey car park and every decaying tower block erected since the war. In fact, the evidence has always existed to support a more finely nuanced picture of his views on modern architecture, not least in Buildings of England entries of the 1960s that express serious reservations about high rise building: ‘Do we really want these towers of flats everywhere? Do tenants want them? Should they be accepted as living conditions by any but bachelors, spinsters, young couples without children, and old people? Will they not be the slums of fifty years hence?… It is surely not all that unlikely that in the 2060s these high blocks will be looked at with as much scandalised curiosity as we feel when looking at the low-cost housing of the 1860s.’ (South Lancashire).
When he wrote this in 1967, Pevsner had already been hinting for a decade that he could not be happy with the way in which modern architecture had developed since the 1950s. ‘What I call modern architecture is no longer modern architecture’, he had written as early as 1956 in an article entitled ‘On Finding Oneself Out of Date’. ‘My wishes have been fulfilled to an alarming degree,’ he added eight years later, ‘and, in many of the fulfilments, hit back at me. For most of what is going up points in a direction quite different from what I expected or pleaded for.’
He disliked many of the buildings of the 1960s and 1970s just as vehemently as his critics did. The massive roughness of Brutalism, the random fenestration and swooping parabolas of neo-Expressionism were symptoms for him of an aggressive individualism that was the antithesis of what he felt the architect’s stance should be.
‘I am a man of the thirties,’ Pevsner declared, ‘ I like things square.’ But even in the thirties he was not an absolutist in his views on modern architecture. In the spring of 1939 he spent considerable time preparing a proposal for a special double issue of the Architectural Review that would feature a complete survey of contemporary architectural styles in Britain from 1924 to 1939. It would not be confined to the Modern Movement – it would cover the British Imperial style which held a grisly fascination for Pevsner, as well as the successors of his Arts and Crafts pioneers. And though it would hope to demonstrate that in the most recent Battle of the Styles, modernism had won a modest victory, this would be a very British version of the Modern Movement: ‘practical without any modern engineering romanticism, impressive but not fussy, self-certain but not boisterous, dignified but not over-bearing – in short, British in every respect and as immediately convincing as an accumulation of the best British qualities can make them’.
The special issue was never published: the war saw to that. But the manuscript survived – and has been edited by Alan Powers and published by the Twentieth Century Society – as proof of a more flexible and open-minded approach to modern architecture than had been suspected of Pevsner.
And now another previously unpublished Pevsner manuscript has been brought to light, this time one from the late 1940s-early 1950s that goes to the heart of his postwar thinking about contemporary architecture. Visual Planning and the Picturesque, edited by Mathew Aitchison, sets out to show that Pevsner was not merely involved in the Townscape movement spearheaded by the Architectural Review in the 1950s, but a central figure in it. The job he was given by the Review’s editor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, was to find historical precedents for Townscape in the Picturesque movement of the eighteenth century. This new publication makes it clear that Pevsner went beyond historical research to reflect on how the Picturesque tradition might be of value in shaping postwar reconstruction – a theme he would pick up again in the last of his Reith lectures in 1955.
The landscape planners of the 18th century had delighted in variety, contrast and irregularity. Those in charge of Britain’s post-war reconstruction, Pevsner felt, should take their cue from an approach to planning that had been flexible, pragmatic, sensitive to feelings as well as intellect, and essentially democratic in its respect for all tastes. It is hardly the stance of an ideologue, and Aitchison has done Pevsner a service by publishing a document that should help to shift the stereotype.