New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
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.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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.

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.

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change