Rice's Architectural Primer, By Matthew Rice

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The Independent Culture

Can you tell a flying buttress from a vast iron member? Do you know the difference between an oeil de boeuf window and a fanlight? Do you think crocketing and tracery are something to do with needlework? And would you place a poodle at an Aedicule opening?

If your answers to all of the above questions are "yes", then you can only be Matthew Rice, author of this excellent and beautiful guide to British architecture. If you do not know all the answers, then this is essential reading, an entertaining capsule complement to Nikolaus Pevsner's inimitable guides to the buildings of England and, in its own right, a charming and eccentric lesson in things we need to know about the buildings we live among.

This is not so much a history of architecture as a lesson in noticing and learning the vocabulary for what we have noticed. Rice is passionate about architecture, and about informing those of us who are not aware that we might like to become passionate about it too.

He knows we are bored easily, so he keeps our interest with his excellent watercolour drawings and a gently didactic but human style. So Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire "has fine Ionic columns but is rather over decorated", and a Modernist building towards the end (with a poodle cocking its leg as one of the named features) has "very few details to describe here – but after all that's what Modernism is all about: clean lines and proportion."

Rice's enthusiasm is matched by an ability to combine the arcane, the rarefied and the every day. In the Georgian section, a Gibbs doorway with plinth and fanlight is enlivened by a woman in her dressing-gown bringing in her pint of milk.

The primer is divided into chapters covering different architectural periods, from Medieval to Modernism. Rice's tone is easily absorbed. So we learn that the Black Death, and subsequent financial disaster due to labour shortages in our predominantly agricultural economy, led to a different way of farming – moving into sheep. This dramatically affected our economy and suddenly Britain was rich. The wool churches of East Anglia, the Cotswolds and the South West are living testament to this. Architecturally, oriel windows, intricate fan-vaulted ceilings and the use of inverted cones were all features springing directly from the new wealth. In the Georgian section, we learn that Sir John Soane, who created Dulwich Picture Gallery and used shallow domes and cross vaulting in his work, has a place in vernacular architecture as these features also appear in the ceiling of the red telephone box.

Rice maintains that the best way to learn about a building is to sit and draw it, and his primer is testament to the truth of his belief. The chapters are preceded by a grammar section with clearly labelled illustrations of different features, and followed by pictorial examples of various styles, by a gazetteer of places to visit in Britain, and a quick guide to the building materials and where they come from.

Having spent a train journey to London immersed in the book, I put Rice's priming to the test in a taxi ride from Liverpool Street to Bayswater. Everything was illuminated, from the red telephone boxes to the oriel windows in Westminster, from the oeil de boeuf detail we whizzed past in Cannon Street to my own home in the attic storey of a five-bay white stucco Regency villa with ionic columns supporting a frieze and cornice.

Rice's reminders that we need the language to describe the buildings we live among ring in my ears. And I agree. I hope he will write about furniture next.