Anthony Symondson SJ praises a superbly comprehensive dictionary of architecture
A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture by James Stevens Curl, OUP E25 (Paperback £10.99)
From time to time 1 have been cautioned by a former literary editor of The Catholic Herald for using technical terminology in reviews of architectural books and biographies. The Herald is not an architectural magazine, I have been reminded. Point taken. But, at the same time, I strongly believe in the usefulness of technical terms.
Two attributes of education are an enquiring mind and a reading ability. When I was a boy I frequently read books that were considered to be too advanced for my years. It was the subjects that interested me and I knew that a dictionary or an encyclopedia would come to the rescue by clarifying obscurity and add to my store of knowledge. This reinforced an opinion, corroborated by many academics, that selfeducation is the most lasting education because it is founded on a genuine desire to learn.
All professions have their private language — the Church, the law, medicine, the Army — and architecture has one of the most interesting. It takes time to master but, once acquired, the world changes and we can read what lies around us and see it with informed eyes. No journey will be the same without it and what we notice as we pass becomes of all-consuming interest, taking us into many worlds and differing mentalities.
The best introduction to a broad understanding and appreciation of architecture is a good dictionary. James Stevens Curl's is one of the best available, rivalled only by The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture by John Fleming, Hugh Honour and Nikolaus Pevsner, the last edition of which was published in 1998. While lacking the grace of their prose, Curl has embarked on a more ambitious project and produced a comprehensive work that
will not quickly be superseded.
No dictionaries are infallible and he quotes Dr Johnson: "dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to run quite true." Yet we have here
not merely a glossary of
architectural terms and
building types, but
entries, disquisitions on architectural movements and styles, and explanations of building techniques that cover every period of western architectural history. Curl's dictionary includes over 6,000 entries, fully crossreferenced, and has over 250 fine illustrations drawn meticulously by the author himself, of which one showing brick bonds is highly informative. An annual pleasure for those on his Christmas card list are Curl's exquisite architectural fantasies that deserve to be collected in a book of their own.
I have learnt a great deal from this book and it will be a constant source of reference. For instance, have you ever heard of a bottle-dungeon? Curl describes it as "a repulsive cell, narrow at the top through which a prisoner would be dropped, the section of which was similar to that of a bottle. A form of oubliette*."
The asterisks next to unfamiliar terms take you to further definitions; "section" leads to "elevation" and from there to "plan", so that in a short time the reader will begin to master not only the essentials of architectural language but also begin to understand how buildings, their design, structure and evolution work.
Architectural movements are described in detail, from Egyptian, through Greek to Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic; Renaissance on to neo-Palladianism via Mannerism; from there to neo-Classicism, the Gothic revival, the neo-styles of modern times: Grec, Georgian, Tudor, Vernacular; until we reach the Modern Movement, PostModernism and Decon
Movements of which I have never heard include the English Extremists, a group of English architects of the Seventies whose "extremism derives from their extravagant eclecticism and startling, jarring geometries,"
summed up in
"Cascades", a tower block
in London's docklands, built in 1988. I can't wait to see it, if it is indeed still standing. Then there are the biographical entries, and in them this dictionary excels. Learning about architects is second only to learning about architecture. All the architects that one has generally heard of are there but there are innumerable others that lie in obscurity, including many still alive. You can read about Dolf Schncbli, Charles Plumet, John Galen Howard, Martin Elsaesser, and Reynold of Ely, one of the master-masons who worked at King's College Chapel, Cambridge.
The dictionary is dedicated to James Esdaile, a son of Mrs Arundell Esdaile, the authority on English monumental sculpture, and Stephen Dykes Bower, the last serious Gothic revivalist. But 1 am sorry that Dykes Bower's mentor. F C Eden, is excluded. He was the most finished English church architect of his generation, second only to Comper and Temple Moore, both of whom enjoy entries. More understandably, Martin Travers is also excluded and so is W Ellery Anderson. His beautiful restoration of the church at Shipton Sollers, Gloucestershire, in 1929 is a jewel. But Frederick Etchells, one of Anderson's admirers, finds a rightful place. Founded on formidable knowledge, judgment and reading. Curl's dictionary informs and delights. The only jarring note is a cover illustration of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, an aggressive Deconstructivist statement in Los Angeles, by Frank Gehry. That is the publisher's choice, but don't let it discourage you; there is no better source of architectural reference available at the price.