Posts Tagged ‘ architecture ’

Pevsner and civic hara-kiri

‘Never, surely, in all The Buildings of England, did Pevsner express himself so angrily about the treatment of a historic town as he did in the Worcestershire volume, published in 1968.’  Pevsner was slow to wrath, if quick to scorn or irritation, but Gavin Stamp is quite right to note that the ‘development’ of Worcester incensed him.

‘C20 Worcester was a cathedral town first and foremost,’ wrote Pevsner, ‘and that makes it totally incomprehensible that the Council should have permitted the act of self-mutilation which is the driving of the busiest fast-traffic road through in a place a few yards from the cathedral.’  The road, designed to take more traffic to the Severn Bridge, took a dual carriageway within 200 feet of the cathedral walls, brought an outstandingly unattractive roundabout within yards of the west door and cut the cathedral off from the city’s High Street and what remains of its historic core. 

The old lych gate, c. 1910

Lychgate development from the cathedral tower

 As for the cathedral’s lych gate – the last surviving example in England – that was destroyed in the mid-1960s, along with the Georgian facades of the south-eastern end of the High Street and the timber-framed buildings of Lich Street, in the cause of 215,00 square feet of shopping: originally the Lychgate Centre, now euphemistically entitled Cathedral Plaza.  

Public Hall, 1966

Public Hall site, 2004

 In the Cornmarket, the Plough Inn was replaced by a Jaguar garage. The Public Hall there (originally the Corn Exchange, 1849)  played host to such people as Charles Dickens, Dvorak and Edward Elgar, before being demolished in 1966 to make way for road development and a new car  park. Further south, looming over the remains of medieval Friar Street, is what has been called ‘possibly the ugliest car park in the country’. 

 The wrecking of Worcester is the subject of the final chapter in Gavin Stamp’s riveting and deeply depressing Britain’s Lost Cities: a chronicle of architectural destruction (Aurum, 2010),  an illustrated necropolis of loved and interesting buildings.  ‘Development in this place is hara-kiri by the city, not murder by the architects,’ raged Pevsner. ‘The crime is the planners’, not the architects’, and the planners would of course have been powerless without the consent of the City Council.’
Pevsner was no foe to planning, as the recent publication of his unfinished manuscript Visual Planning and the Picturesque makes clear. But sensitivity was a critical component of the kind of planning he favoured – sensitivity to how well streets and buildings function as well as what they look like, respect for historical tradition and religious sensibilities, consideration for the people who inhabit a place as well as those who park in it.

St Peter's Church, Worcester, 1890s

St Peter's Street, Worcester, 2004


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.

Soft spots – 1 : E.B. Lamb

Pevsner prized his principles; he also enjoyed violating them on occasion. Some of his best descriptions are of architecture he obviously relished against his better judgement, where there is guilty pleasure in his voice whatever harsh words he may be using. This is the first in a series of ‘soft spots’, buildings Pevsner didn’t mean to like.  

St Martin, Vicars Road, St Pancras. E.B. Lamb, 1866. Photo: George P. Landow

‘ST MARTIN, Vicars Road (B), 1866 by E.B. Lamb, one of Mr Goodhart-Rendel’s ‘rogues’, and indeed the craziest of London’s Victorian churches, inconfutable proof, if proof were needed, that the Victorians were not mere imitators in their ecclesiastical architecture. For here, although individual elements can easily be traced back to period precedent, their mixture with completely original ones results in an unprecedented whole which is both striking and harrowing.   

The attitude has rightly been compared with that of the innovators of Art Nouveau about 1900. The exterior is comparatively harmless, of Kentish rag, low, but with an uncommonly tall N tower close to the W end. The tower has a yet taller stair turret (total height 130 ft). The church itself has tall Tudor windows, many gables, and a polygonal apse, narrower than the shallow also slightly polygonal S transept. (But the N transept is straight-ended).  

A sight never before seen

The inside is a mixture of the longitudinal and the central …. Hammerbeam roof running right through, with the fussiest, busiest details, and resting on shafts which do not go down to the ground, but start from Cistercian-looking brackets.    

The square piers between nave and aisles have four such bracketed shafts attached to their four sides (a sight never before seen).’

Pevsner’s reading list

Pevsner kept diaries for over sixty years. For the first six of these years, between the ages of 12 and 18, before he had other and larger projects to catalogue, he not only wrote the diaries every day but kept minutely detailed indexes to what he had written, almost more revealing than the entries themselves.    

The diarist

 ‘Abhorrence of a vacuum’   is followed by ‘longing for a brown complexion’,  ‘nailbiting’  and  ‘the first drink’.  ‘Pevsner the poseur’ is counterbalanced by ‘dealings with his conscience’.  His views on  ‘the coming rise of the proletariat’  sit side by side with thoughts on the relative merits of trousers and bare legs. He both confesses his fear of having no talent as a scholar and congratulates himself on his new-found self-assurance.     This blog will aim, like the diaries, to provide insights into Pevsner’s character as well as angles on his work. But it won’t be indexed and the entries will come in no particular logical or chronological order.    

The reading list

 Some early clues to his interests. He thought it was worth the effort to make a list of what he had been reading: Thomas Mann above all, Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Strindberg, Dostoevsky — not many laughs here — but also Longfellow, Poe, Molière, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Bernard Shaw and Shelley. In contrast with the Buildings of England years, when he complained that he never read a novel at all, the young Pevsner seems to have tried to keep up with recent fiction as well, some of it racier than one might have expected.    

Herman Bang

Peter Altenberg (right) with Adolf Loos, c. 1905

Danish novelist Herman Bang was described by Monet as ‘the first impressionist author in the world’; his novel Families Without Hope (1880), centred on a young man’s love affair with an older woman, was banned. Peter Altenberg, Austrian poet and essayist, an influential member of the ‘Young Vienna’ movement, was a professional bohemian given to aphorisms very likely to appeal to a teenage diarist: There is only one thing indecent with nakedness, and that is to find nakedness indecent, Art is life, life is life, but to lead life artistically is the art of life, and so on.     

Richard Dehmel, 1905

Frank Wedekind (Fotografie, um 1917)

Frank Wedekind, 1917

The poet Richard Dehmel (author of the poem which Schoenberg set to music as ‘Verklärte Nacht’) was another author to cause a scandal through his championing of sex as the weapon with which to break the bonds of bourgeois morality.  Arnold Zweig was an anti-war activist, Frank Wedekind a satirist and cabaret artist who had gone to prison at the turn of the century for lèse-majesté.  Arthur Schnitzler had just written a play – Professor Bernhardi (1912) – attacking anti-semitism, and was one of the first writers in German (he was Austrian) to experiment with the stream-of-consciousness narrative.   

Theodor Storm had been consumed by his love for a very young girl – an echo, perhaps, for the sixteen-year-old Pevsner of his love for the fourteen-year-old Lola. Storm believed in the therapeutic effect of reminiscences: hard to know if Pevsner found his diaries therapeutic, but they were a habit that he would find very hard to break.