Before the first year of the new century comes to an end the golden jubilee of enterprise that began in 1951 is worth commemorating. Professor Nikolaus Pevsner then brought out the first four volumes of The Buildings of England series of architectural guides for London, Cornwall, Nottinghamshire and Middlesex, price 3s 6d a copy. Published by Penguin Books in paperback, with distinctive brown covers, and encouraged by Sir Allen Lane's personal interest they sprang as a welcome surprise on a postwar generation in an era of social reform. By 1974 there were 46, covering the whole country. The context is important because the Modem Movement in architecture was at that time being applied as a tool of reconstruction in the form of new towns, housing estates, schools and universities, churches, office blocks.
The problem was that few but idealists and theorists liked modern architecture. The Festival of Britain blazed a trail in modem design and for the first time ever the international modern style of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe burst upon a public that had seen nothing like it before and were wooed to regard it as the style of the future. An aggressive new world was created with no reference to the historical tradition of western building, an architecture stripped of the classical language which had enabled architects to express themselves with imagination for thousands of years.
Mouldings, ornament, symmetry and warmth were abandoned in favour of structurally unsound glass walls and drab, irretrievably stained concrete. Elaborate air-conditioning, without which the buildings would not function, introduced Legionnaire's disease and the English climate played havoc with glass walls and flat roofs. Damage done by wilfully insensitive building in the historic towns and cities of Britain and Europe later brought unprecedented popularity to the preservation movement and the watchful strictures of English Heritage. If you want to see what I mean, go to Birmingham or look at the decaying eyesores of the last 50 years that lie around you.
You might wonder what this has to do with architectural guidebooks. Few realised at the time that Pevsner had embarked upon a dedicated campaign, that through architectural history he was attempting to persuade the English to accept the Modem Movement as the only style in which a modem man ought to express himself. "The ruthless scrapping of tradition" was essential "if a style fitting our century was to be allowed". An historical approach was applied which granted recognition only to buildings which were regarded as in the line of progress to the authentic Modern style. Architects like Lutyens and Comper who did not subscribe or fit into the official line were marginalised or rendered non-persons, as in Stalin's Russia, but there were many buildings that were not tired reproduc lions but creative essays in styles other than the Modem. Most were dismissed by Pevsner as worthless.
John Betjeman loathed Pevsner's guides, he thought they were little more than catalogues, disliked their lack of context, kept them hidden in his library and dismissed Pevsner as a "dull pedant from Prussia". There was a background to his antipathy. In 1951 he and John Piper had resumed publishing the Shell Guides, a venture that had started in 1933 and had been interrupted by the war. Pevsner produced works of dry, factual reference which would rarely break into poetry. Enlivened by humour, good judgement and perception, the Shell Guides gave evocative descriptions of English counties, beautifully illustrated with black and white photographs, that opened readers' eyes, made them see buildings, landscape and places whole, and live at ease with their surroundings. They brought architecture to life but perhaps because they lacked Penguin's distribution they did not capture the nation's imagination. For those who fell under their spell, their way of seeing was transformed.
In the summer The Buildings of England: A Celebration was published by the Building Book Trust to mark 50 years of the Pevsner guides and if you want to know more of the man you should
read it. Among the illustrations is one showing him taking notes in the Church of St Giles, Wimbome St Giles, Dorset, in 1970. This is one of the most beautiful restorations in the country of a much altered 18th century church that had been destroyed by fire and entirely rebuilt and enlarged by Sir Ninian Comper in 190810. It is a work of genius in which for the first time he combined the classical and gothic styles in one and created an exquisitely furnished interior designed as a unified work of art that looked as if it had naturally developed through time and had always been so. It is one of the most visited of Compter's churches.
Pevsner regarded the rood screen as a tour-de-force but little else pleased him and he accused Comper of tampering with the interior. "He put in tall round pillars to separate his aisle from the cI8 nave and also to create an S aisle. This was bound to be preposterously narrow and the whole conceit shows Crimper at his most wilful." Well, that also shows Pevsner's own wilfulness because he reduces to a footnote the fact that the interior had first been changed by Bodley in 1887 and it also demonstrates his visual blindness which reduced a beautiful building to an analysis of parts and a list of contents.
Why does this matter? Because it shows how a campaign of denigration can destroy an architectural reputation and impoverish architectural writing to tedium. Comper, one of the greatest church architects of the 20th century, never recovered from Pevsner's detraction and it is only now that his work is being rediscovered. Architectural history and appreciation has almost died among the younger generation and mainly limps on in schools of architecture. I wonder how much of the arid, wearisome list-making of the Buildings of England, the inhuman architectural legacy and the cult of ugliness that Pevsner helped to bring into being is responsible for that. Think about it.