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30 August 2011

In praise of Nikolaus Pevsner

An architectural critic for our time.

By Daniel Barrow

With the publication of Susie Harries’s new biography of Nikolaus Pevsner, reviewed in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, it may well be time to take another look at Jonathan Meades’s film, Pevsner Revisited, broadcast by the BBC in 2001, just ahead of Pevsner’s centenary. (The 110th anniversary of his birth falls in January.)


Pevsner has been an underexposed figure since his death in 1983, something probably to be attributed to the growing official hostility to the two preoccupations of his life’s work: a taste for architecture poised between the twin poles of medieval churches and international-style modernism; and the great, social-democratic projects of public education. Pevsner’s minor revival over the past few years has coincided with a renewal of interest in mid-20th-century design in general: Penguin paperbacks, Blue Note record jackets, Arne Jacobsen furniture, and so on. Those aesthetics, however, have become detached from their historic context in a way that would have appalled the scrupulous Pevsner.

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It is difficult not to think that part of Meades’s admiration for Pevsner comes from his status as the odd man out of British architecture, in a field dominated by reactionaries such as Gavin Stamp and Simon Jenkins — or, on the other hand, by über-modernists such as Hal Foster and Rem Koolhaas. Part of the appeal is also Pevsner’s incongruity: this stocky, unassuming man who spoke with a soft, slightly pedantic Teutonic lisp was responsible for one of the largest book projects in modern history — think In Search of Lost Time multiplied by nearly seven — alongside vast swaths of other work.

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Meanwhile, as Harries found out during her research, Pevnser maintained a voluminous diary and wrote tons of letters. He did all this in a style that is, if at times imperfect — as Meades notes in his film on Worcestershire from the Travels with Pevsner series (1998), “he could be as banal as Bill Bryson” — is as much a guide for writers today as Richard Cook’s and Brian Morton’s work in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on Record or David Thomson’s in The Biographical Dictionary of Film: witty, effortlessly knowledgeable, supremely well-tuned, economical, often slyly funny. As Alexandra Harris puts it in her review in the latest issue, he “examined American leisurewear or measured a frankfurter, or noted the ‘excessively cross-legged knight’ on a tomb”. For Meades, in his account of Pevsner, architecture begins with an account of the concrete, of actually existing architecture, which focuses on historical development, as a guide to what is aesthetically necessary today; the binary between vernacular and planned architecture, so well-beloved of architectural conservatives, is unimportant in Pevsner’s work. He is, being untimely, a figure for our own time, intervening against the prevailing ethos, in tune with the sense of architecture as lived form and heroic venture.