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Book Review: "Visual Planning and the Picuresque" by Nikolaus Pevsner. Edited by Mathew Aitchison
A rediscovered manuscript unveils a portrait of the famed architectural historian as neglected urban designer. His commitment to the picturesque aesthetic for buildings and towns is as urgently needed as ever.
By Norman Weinstein
February 1, 2011
Can we agree that the two most influential architectural historians of the past century are Vincent Scully and Nikolaus Pevsner? Both managed to bring to architectural history a mass appeal without a loss of intellectually rigorously, cross-disciplinary depth and breadth. Both were quintessential thinkers of their homelands, Pevsner the author of The Englishness of English Art while Scully, ever the New Englander, wrote The Shingle Style and the Stick Style. Consequently, Scully’s architectural histories are better known in the U.S. today, and Pevsner’s more familiar in the U.K.
What do they share? The sensibility of art historians looking at architecture historically and critically, as if capable of always seeing hidden connections between architects’ drawings and how painters might have painted the identical subjects. But why juxtapose the oh-so-English, long-dead Pevsner (1902-1983) with the still quite alive Yankee Scully? My pairing has everything to do with Visual Planning and the Picturesque, the sensational Pevsner manuscript literally resurrected and meticulously annotated by Mathew Aitchison, Research Fellow and Centre Manager of ATCH at the University of Queensland School of Architecture.
If you know Pevsner’s writing at all, you know he was an indefatigable stickler when it came to writing about minute architectural details. So his sentences could become bloody prolix, baroquely so. But he also could write little jolting photo captions that resound like thunder across a tempestuous sky. It is this Pevsner style that dominates Visual Planning and the Picturesque. In fact, a third of this unfinished manuscript that editor Aitchison has cobbled together consists of nothing but Pevsner’s black-and-white photos (largely of Oxford and Bath) framed by his high torque captions. The book’s other two thirds consist of a gallery of Pevsner’s favorite quotes from 18th-century English landscape planners and artists, and Aitchison’s bricolage of selections from multiple manuscripts in the Pevsner archives pertaining to planning.
Pevsner, never trained as an architectural planner, I find more stimulating than the last dozen books I’ve read by big-name U.S. urban planners. Here’s why. Pevsner’s interest in urban planning draws inspiration from the theory and practice of the picturesque, an English tradition highlighting the aesthetic pleasures of roughness, asymmetry, irregularity, variety, and surprise. This connects to another facet of Pevsner, the architectural historian as champion of Modernism, which could be aptly described by the five pleasures of the picturesque, listed above. His architectural histories always implicitly rooted the 20th century to that peculiar version of the English past. And whether you agree with Pevsner’s interpretation of the roots of Modernism, he builds a fascinating case, utilizing everything from Alexander Pope’s poetry on Nature’s unpredictable profusions of growth, to self-made landscape theorist Uvedale Price. Price from his 1798 perspective sounds shockingly avant-garde when he speaks of his wish when engaging in garden design “to prefer impropriety to timid monotony; to prefer the incongruous to the insipid,” desiring to establish the idiosyncratically irregular “picturesque” as an aesthetic category just as appropriate to planning as “The Sublime” and “The Beautiful” as outlined by Edmund Burke. But Price sounds very unlike Burke, and more like a Surrealist and proto-Punk when he comments:
A piece of Palladian architecture may be elegant to the last degree...Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet, instead of the chisel: we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps.
Pevsner, by quoting Price extensively, was not arguing for architecture and urban planning based solely on irrational caprice. He was underscoring the perennial freshness that can blossom in buildings and cities when the picturesque – the asymmetric irregularities so often integral to vernacular traditions – are permitted to prosper.
What this practically means in our era is that worthy experiments in neo-Palladianism and “Traditional Modernism” should be critically examined in light of the uncanny aesthetic energies lost when the picturesque is neglected in favor of the uniform and symmetrical. When the most astutely neo-conservative architect of our time, Robert A.M. Stern, underscores the necessity of mining the best from architecture’s past in order to go forward, the timely question to propose is: “Which of the many architectural pasts should we return to in order to progress?” In a poignant story journalist Richard Conniff wrote about Stern’s dear colleague, Vincent Scully, we can see ultimately how Scully the architectural historian fundamentally differed from Pevsner:
In the 1960’s, Scully and the sculptor Claes Oldenburg reconnoitered Beinecke Plaza one night when the library was new and the aesthetic pain still fresh. ("It hurts everything that was there before it," he said at the time. "All the rest of Yale is a gentle tonal unity; the Beinecke's area is one blinding white flash.")
Chances are that if Pevsner had been on the scene at that moment, he might have exclaimed: “Vince, I love Beinecke because Yale has too much vitality to be architecturally represented by ‘gentle tonal unity.’”
In this time when both neo-Palladian architects (think of Princeton’s plans to aesthetically Eisenhower their new campus) and sustainable design/build firms treat aesthetics-first oddball details as superfluous eye-candy, this book reveals why Pevsner’s commitment to the picturesque aesthetic for buildings and towns is as urgently needed as ever.
Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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