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An Astonishment of Knowledge

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
A History of Building Types. By Nikolaus Pevsner. Bolingen Series. Princeton. $37.50.

IN a History of Building Types Sir Nikolaus Pevsner has produced a book so broad, so just, so unprecedented, so full of detail, so well organized, so splendid in its physical virtues, and with such a surety in the handling of language that one can only react with astonishment at the immensity of his knowledge, or with pleasure at the fruit of his well-furnished mind.

As for organization, he has dealt with no less than 20 types of buildings in single chapters or paired in single chapters except in the case of government buildings which fill four chapters altogether. Within each chapter he starts, usually in the post-classical period, with a narrative of the functional development of that type and then illustrates it with the architectural response to that functional growth. Since the 19th century was usually the century of greatest development, it is also the one receiving the fullest exposition.

This sounds like the most commonsensical of approaches. But when one realizes that there is no such treatment in existence, that the facts had to be gathered from such a multiplicity of sources that there are 33 triple-columned folio size pages of bibliographies and notes, and that in spite of the Herculean labor of what might, in this computer age, be called “information retrieval,” a text of considerable unity and interest has been produced, the enormity of the achievement begins to be perceived. Further than that one quickly learns that the writing has surmounted the dull-retailing-of-facts syndrome, for it sparkles not only with the Pevsner wit but also with the Pevsner personality.

In this Sir Nikolaus is unique among architectural writers. It is true Ruskin’s personality did show through in his writing, but, since he was always serious and frequently dour, his pages lacked the brilliance to be found when Sir Nikolaus is at the lecturer’s podium, the luncheon table, or his desk.

An early example of this humanizing of a factual text comes on page 31 when a theoretical town center, designed during the Renaissance by Antonio Filarete, is described as having two chapels one balancing the other, this redundancy being given the parenthetical remark “(symmetry before reason!).” He uses “Wrenaissance motifs” (p. 131) as a concise indication of style; or says “nineteenth century historicism is marching” when he is discussing the three designs, Greek, Roman, and Renaissance, of 1815 for the Munich Glyptothek submitted by Leo van Klenze (p. 124); and a little later he writes of the greatest of architectural mistakes—a column in the center of a portico—as “a Greek Doric portico of—oh horror!—five columns,” when he is talking about the 1839 State Bank at Shawneetown, Illinois (p. 206).

One word will sometimes give great insight into a well-known monument as when he calls the Medici Library at Florence that “perturbing monument to mannerism” (p.95), the “perturbing,” of course, being the unusual application of the mot juste. And he is certainly not beyond condemning in the most forthright way practices of which he does not approve. He refers to the National Gallery in London as “somehow too bitty to achieve . . .monumentally” (pp. 128—29); “the classicism of Tite’s designs is rather undisciplined” is the phrase for the London Royal Exchange (p. 203); the destruction of Soane’s Bank of England is castigated as “one of the worst acts of vandalism committed in Britain in our century” (p. 202); the Euston Station screen was “viciously demolished” (p. 226); or he speaks of the “crazy tower” on the Halles at Bruges (p. 236); and Ledoux’s designs for Chaux, that is, the Royal Salt Works, are characterized as having details which are “weird, and the shapes of many of the dwellings weirder still” (p. 283).

Is it any wonder such an author can endow the story of hospitals with fascination or that of warehouses with the interest normally found in novels!

One problem remains. How does one correct so eminent an author (his knighthood was earned through his teaching and writing, and, for the same reasons, he has garnered several gold medals from professional organizations, while in 1975 he received the Jefferson medal of the University of Virginia)? The answer is, of course, in fear and trembling, but in this particular journal it is really compulsory to point out three mistakes: the columns of the Capitol in Richmond are called “Corinthian” on page 36 when, in reality, they are Ionic although in the lithograph reproduced in the book the distinction could easily be confused; on page 38 the 1807—11 proposal by Latrobe for a facade for the Capitol in Washington is said to be “north” when it was, in actuality, for the west side of the building; and the famous fire in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia is dated “1875” on page 104 instead of the correct 1895.

A word of praise should be given to the typographer, for the hundreds of illustrations are precisely where one wants them.


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