Nikolaus Pevsner changed the way we look at the architecture of England. But do his singular views mean anything today?
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Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the massively hard-working and hugely influential architectural historian, arrived in England from Germany in 1935 to take up a research post at the University of Birmingham's Department of Commerce. His mission was to study British indus- trial design. A shy, meticulous, and driven scholar, he was 33 years old, and although he was formidably bright, his English was as uncertain as his future in a hidebound culture in which the work of the amateur had long been prized above that of the professional critic and historian. For this he was to be much teased. But if it upset him privately, he never complained. Wisely, he decided not to return to Germany, but to begin writing his Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius, which was published by Penguin Books in 1936, and in a later edition - Pioneers of Modern Design (1949) - became a bestseller. It has been in print ever since.

Born in Leipzig, the son of a successful local businessman, Pevsner was a Russian Jew by background but a Lutheran by choice. His father died in Germany a free man, in 1940, but his mother was later to commit suicide rather than be sent to a concentration camp. Pevsner was, to say the least, highly educated, studying at Leipzig, Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt universities before completing his doctoral thesis on the German Baroque in 1924. For the next four years he was assistant keeper at the Dresden Art Gallery, specialising in Italian mannerist paintings, before moving on to a teaching post at the Institute of English Studies at Gottingen University.

His early fascination with England led, within 25 years of his arrival, to his becoming a part of the English landscape. Between 1949 and 1974 he toured England by car (driven mostly by his wife), compiling a 46-volume guide, The Buildings of England, to every structure he thought was of interest in his adopted country, a place that, in his reserved way, he fell head over heels in love with. He was helped by teams of students and existing indexes scattered in various libraries and institutions.

Today, those 46 volumes (now extended by Pevsner's successors to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) are essential building blocks in hundreds of thousands of middle-class homes from Land's End to John O'Groats. "Looking it up in Pevsner" is something many of us have been trained to do from childhood when faced with an unknown building. This extraordinary dictionary, encyclopaedia or Bible of home-grown architecture is the starting point for much of our basic knowledge and understanding of British buildings from Stonehenge to Centre Point. It is also an inescapably Prussian work, a resolutely scholarly and often arid listing of important and significant buildings that captures little of their beauty and almost none of their romance. For this, Herr Doktor Professor Pevsner has been much criticised. Revised volumes published since his death in 1983 seem (happily) prolix when compared to the originals.

Jamie Muir, a BBC producer, has had the idea of packing six presenters off to their favourite English county with the relevant Pevsner guide. The result is Travels with Pevsner, a series starting next Saturday on BBC2. The presenters are Dan Cruickshank, architectural historian, on Norfolk, Janet Street-Porter on North Yorkshire (the North Riding when Pevsner went there in the Fifties), Germaine Greer on Warwickshire, Lucinda Lambton on County Durham, Patrick Wright, author, on Dorset, and Michael Bracewell, novelist, on Surrey.

Most people who are interested in architecture have travelled at some time with Pevsner (in book form in the glove compartment of the Volvo); we rely on the late professor to tell us what we are looking at, and in the most succinct terms. Here is an example, taken at random, from Norfolk: "HORSHAM ST FAITH, St Mary and St Andrew. A large parish church, S of the Priory. Dec W tower, see the belfry windows, but there is a Perp arch to the nave. Perp all the rest, except the E wall of the chancel, which was left intact with its three-stepped E.E lancet window [etc, etc]."

In reality, Muir and his presenters have used Pevsner's guides as an excuse to make a series of hit-and-miss travelogues peppered with favourite buildings and romantic landscapes. Perhaps this is not so important, as Travels with Pevsner is really an excuse for an armchair celebration of English architecture and landscape, and, as Muir says, "in describing their attachment to certain places, the presenters inevitably reveal something of their own personalities" as they buzz along never-less-than-beautifully filmed highways and byways, in a strange assortment of cars.

Pevsner himself travelled in a variety of small and very English cars, including a Wolseley Hornet and a Morris 1100. This, in a way, said a lot about him. He thrilled to England and Englishness, and could write, when not being censorious with himself, lyrically about the landscape. Among his books are not only The Englishness of English Design but also The Leaves of Southwell, a delightful miniature which describes and celebrates the superb naturalistic carvings of leaves on the capitals of Southwell Minster. Sadly, perhaps, in most of his books, which also include the monumental An Outline of European Architecture and the seminal A History of Building Types, Pevsner tends to be dry and analytical. While his eye never missed a detail, as a writer he may have missed a trick by appearing a little dull and worthy. This was not because he lacked a romantic imagination, but because he was brought up in the school of German scholarship that demanded a rigorous attention to facts and a systematic exposition of them. A scholar must be serious and sober, able to make wide-ranging historical connections, as history itself was a precise science.

This did not endear him to certain English critics and historians, who enjoyed whimsy as much as accuracy, humour as much as detail. At times Pevsner can seem a little too like Professor Otto Silenus, the mittel- European architect from Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, whose aim is to eliminate the human dimension from architecture. In the 46 volumes of The Buildings of England people play little part; it is as if Pevsner has swept them into the margins.

What Pevsner tried to do, unlike the BBC presenters following in his tyre tracks, is to list and describe buildings objectively. To eliminate the human element for the purpose of strictly architectural description is in many ways a virtue. This method allows us to look objectively, as far as this is possible, at the work of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, or buildings constructed for Mussolini, Franco or Ceaucescu, without resorting to piousness or judgements groaning under the weight of political correctness. We can reassess, as Dan Cruickshank does convincingly, such difficult Modern buildings as the revolutionary, and much derided, school that Peter and Alison Smithson designed on the Norfolk coast at Hunstanton. Best of all, it gives us a chance to look afresh at a great English country house like Holkham Hall, also in Norfolk, free from cloying sentiment and overtones of Brideshead. Pevsner's analysis of Holkham reveals a strict, geometrically severe building, almost at odds with English notions of the picturesque. In fact it is rather Germanic.

Pevsner, with his pernickety ways and comic turn of speech, was easily ridiculed. John Betjeman, his polar opposite, and author of many of the Shell Guides to England, led a cruel and English-public-schoolboy attack on Pevsner for nearly half a century. Perhaps he was exasperated by Pevsner's pseudo-scientific approach to architectural history; perhaps he was a little jealous of Pevsner's ascendancy. Certainly Pevsner's scholarship daunted the future Poet Laureate.

In a letter to James Lees-Milne dated 26 March 1952, Betjeman describes Pevsner as "that dull pedant from Prussia" and lambasts "the new refugee scholars" who have killed all we like by their "research". Pevsner had been given the nickname "Granny" by Philip Morton- Shand, a leading contributor to the Architectural Review. Betjeman adopted it, and revelled in a piece of doggerel sent to him by Peter Clarke, a Times journalist, in the early Fifties. It read:

From the heart of Mittel Europe

I make der little trip

to show those Englisch dummkopfs

some echtdeutsch scholarship.

Viele Sehenswurdigkeiten

[Many of the things worth seeing]

by others have been missed

but now comes to enlighten

der Great Categorist.

In truth, we have gained immensely from eine kleine echtdeutsch scholarship, while Betjeman and Pevsner complement one another extremely well. It is not even a case of the eternal romantic confronting the indefatigable rationalist. Privately, Pevsner was a kind and gentle man, and even, behind a severe facade, a bit of a romantic. The hundreds of students he taught at Birkbeck College, London remember his patience and concern. He was a good "granny" to them, extraordinarily patient with those whose intellect and knowledge were less than his (which was nearly everyone).

My own meetings with Pevsner, when I was a young assistant editor on the Architectural Review, were never less than delightful. He was a large, warm and cosy figure, in thick tweeds and gold-rimmed glasses. He wanted you to discover things for yourself, but was there to correct the slightest error of historical fact. He told me, in a rare moment of openness, how he had arrived in England and, at the outbreak of war, was to have been taken to Australia from the internment camp in Lancashire he had been assigned to. The ship he would have travelled on was torpedoed, and many on board drowned.

To Pevsner's assistance - he showed me the correspondence - came the great Frank Pick, who was chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board in the Thirties and Director of Duff Cooper's Ministry of Information in 1940, where he employed, among others, Betjeman. Even with Pick's help, this German emigre was reduced from teaching, writing and editing to shovelling bomb debris from the streets. Not exactly a fitting job for an academic and aesthete, but it was better that Pevsner lived in London clearing damage inflicted by German attacks than that he should have stayed in Dresden and risked becoming a victim of British bombing.

Pevsner's obituary of Pick in the Architectural Review was suitably moving, as were some of his writings on Victorian architecture. Pevsner may have been a champion of rationalism and Modernism, but he fell for batty Victorian Gothic architecture just as readily as Betjeman and Kenneth Clark had before him. He was to become the first chairman of the Victorian Society when it was founded in 1958. His intellectual weakness was not, as Betjeman believed, his relentless categorising, but as David Watkin, a former pupil and now a don at Cambridge, exposed brilliantly in his book Architecture and Morality (1978), an ultimately illogical and unsustainable view to the effect that Modern architecture was the inevitable result of a deterministic historical process. And because it was, in principle, functional and thus "honest", it was also morally sound. In other words, Modern architecture was inevitable, right and good for us.

For all his love of England and Victorian architecture, Pevsner retained the soul of an 18th-century Prussian rationalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. Today, we argue that, while in many ways revolutionary, Modern architecture (specifically, the architecture of the Modern Movement) is just as much a style, or a number of styles, as the EE, Dec, Perp or the Baroque, Palladian and Neo-Classical one finds dotted throughout The Buildings of England. In fact, it was another pupil of Pevsner's, Charles Jencks, who in his book Modern Movements in Architecture helpfully and, at the time, radically identified the strands of design that add up to something we like to label "Modern Architecture" - as if it were as singular as God the Father.

Whatever Pevsner's limitations, and Betjeman's fifth-form criticism of the Great Categoriser, he has handed us down a treasuretrove of architectural lore to help us love and care for our heritage. No, the professor would never have described Durham Cathedral (one of his favourite English buildings) as "spiritual splendour solidified in stone" (Lucy Lambton) or a view from Leith Hill Tower, a thousand feet above the cul-de-sacs of Surrey, as a "penthouse over the picturesque" (Michael Bracewell). He was more likely to describe (as he did) Wells Cathedral as the possessor of "an unsatisfactory west front". Pevsner was a purist, and somehow I imagine that travels with the professor were much more accurate, but decidedly less fun than those undertaken by BBC presenters 40 years later.

'Travels with Pevsner' begins on Saturday on BBC2.

The experts' view

Philip Johnson, architect, New York

"Nikolaus Pevsner was my nanny. His history of European architecture was my primer. I backed into the Renaissance with his essay on Mannerism just after the Second World War. I learnt intellectual disagreement with his views on modern architecture, so different from mine. And all the time we were personal friends. No one could help it. Most poignant to me were his visits to our country. Seeing America through his perception was a revelation. Penetrating as were his eyes, however, he had a hard time differentiating an 18th-century wooden house from a 1920s '18th-century' house. The different scale of the mullions, the deeper overhang of the gables escaped him. As the great Kunstgeschichte scholars die off, what next? Perhaps the next generation won't care. Architecture existed long before it."

John Pawson, architect, London

"I like the idea of Pevsner, his obsessiveness, his attention to detail. Perhaps I should travel with his guides alongside me, but I don't. I'm quite selective about the buildings I like - 12th- century monasteries, medieval stone barns, fine Georgian houses - and rarely feel compelled to stop and examine parish churches and eccentric buildings. You could say I admire Pevsner's method and determination, but not the encyclopaedia of buildings that his guides offer."

Zaha Hadid, architect, London

"Pevsner's guides were very useful to me when I was at school, and as a reference they're still important. I feel, though, that younger generations may be less interested in the kind of obsessive attention he paid to buildings. I find that my students, when we go on tours of cities in Britain and abroad, are far more interested in what I'd call the urban 'landscape' or the life and culture of a place. Years ago, we used to take students around every building in minute detail, as Pevsner did. To students it could become just a list of dates and styles, and I think that way of looking at architecture was always in danger of being blinkered. Maybe we need a completely new type of guide to complement Pevsner."

Sir Hugh Casson, architectural director, Festival of Britain

"He looked to me like a kindly postmistress - pink cheeks, gold spectacles, sweet smile, brisk, authoritative manner. Like a postmistress too he worked in a flurry of tiny bits of paper, produced from his pockets, scribbled on in his tiny script and then replaced or handed to a secretary for later action. No remark, no name, no event, no idea passed his attention without this note-taking procedure. He was always serious but never solemn. His curiosity was so tireless and his search for new knowledge so intense it seemed unhealthy. Such dedication made him, I think, a lonely figure. It earned him the reputation of being no more than a walking repository of data. He was a vulnerable man and I think resented the persistence of this false image."

Jane Fawcett, architectural historian

"During the 13 years that Nikolaus Pevsner ran the Victorian Society, I had the privilege of working very closely with him, both as Secretary of the Society and as one of his students at Birkbeck College. The campaigns that he led to bring attention to the 19th century were memorable. When Nikolaus retired, it was said that he had saved a century. His breadth of scholarship worked on a European scale, and placed British Victorian architecture where it belonged, high upon it. His evening lectures at Birkbeck often lasted three hours, and came at the end of a full day in the office which had begun at 5am. He regularly worked for three hours before breakfast, and then walked to work. He frequently walked home as well. The climax of the academic year was, for his students, a visit to a cathedral, during which the entire building was studied, stone by stone. The last trip of all was a visit to Westminster Abbey, starting at 9am. After an exhausting day, without a break, during which some of the weaker students furtively munched biscuits, the survey was completed. At 4pm, Nikolaus, who had eaten nothing, said, "Now, the monuments." At 6.30pm the tour was finished. He was then over 70."