Life in the old book yet

Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture
November 8, 1996

Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture, first published in 1896, has always maddened and embarrassed architects and academics. How can such a large and disconnected subject be covered thoroughly in a single book, and still be useful?

The Comparative Method was used in the earlier editions, up to the 18th edition, when it was dropped by J. C. Palmes; the organised structure by era and style suited Fletcher, who also lectured students at the Bartlett School on the technical aspects of construction. But description and interpretation of architecture developed, and architectural history is now a discipline in its own right, with its own issues of interpretation and meaning.

The publication of the 20th edition in 100 years indicates the success of a formula that various editors have evolved to suit each age. Although Dan Cruickshank has expanded the new edition to 1,800 pages and commissioned the rewriting of over 35 per cent of the content, habitual users like myself will find reprinted again many of the beautiful drawings and historic photographs, still all in black and white.

There is a more logical ordering of the chapters on European architecture, so that the Renaissance is described as it spread across the continent from Florence to Scandinavia. With the advent of postmodernism, it has also become necessary to explain each century's interpretation of the word "classical". But this fearless approach of starting from first principles before embarking on a fast Grand Tour of seminal buildings (whose speed would deter any cruise-ship guide) is a worthy continuation of Fletcher's tradition of the scholarly selection necessary to condense the material within the constraints of current printing technology.

However, the new contributions have changed significantly the character and message of this vast compendium. The 20th century alone takes up one-fifth of the narrative text, including descriptions of Far Eastern, African and Antipodean buildings. Although it is stimulating to be drawn away from British regionalism, the discrimination honed successfully over many editions in, for example, the selection of Renaissance examples, has not been exercised so carefully in the section on modern architecture. As the editor of the Russian section admits, political limitations affected the quality of architecture, and works should be judged accordingly.

The result is an occasional unevenness which goes beyond the omissions inevitable in such a difficult editorial task. For example, the section on the Meiji era in postcolonial Japan concentrates on buildings in European styles rather than on the inventive ways in which traditional disciplines were adapted as a result of western ideas. There are examples of bland commercial architecture that should have been omitted in favour of further indigenous buildings, though it is refreshing to see Eladio Dieste's work in Uruguay, Laurie Baker's in India and Geoffrey Bawa's in Sri Lanka, all relevant to local materials, climate and culture. The omission of any buildings by Arthur Ericson, designed so beautifully for the Canadian landscape, is surprising.

There has been an inevitable change in the character of the drawings. The unique freehand drawings included from earlier editions of buildings and details up to the 19th century all have a unity, despite the different hands which are detectable. The character of the drawings was suited to ancient and classical architecture. Twentieth-century buildings are often illustrated by the architects' own sparse hard-line drawings, which are only partially successful. Le Corbusier's plan of the Villa Savoye near Paris is perfectly reduced in size, as are Norman Foster's sections and details of Stansted Airport. Yet how did the plan of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank become so bleached and uninformative? The graphic character of the book changes noticeably in the 20th-century section, which could have been managed better.

It is also surprising that there is little reference to the impact during the past two decades of the conservation movement, which has been assiduous in preserving the buildings described in the first 1,200 pages. Carlo Scarpa, Giancarlo de Carlo, Sverre Fehn and Karl Josef Schattner all have designed modern buildings within and around historic buildings with far more skill than some of the gratuitous examples of commercial architecture, whose greed has often destroyed unprotected historic buildings. Only Scarpa's Castelvecchio museum in Verona is illustrated.

These are only minor criticisms of a book whose value for money, even at Pounds 75, is extraordinary. Students would be well advised not to waste money on a pile of discounted colourful coffee-table books on separate subjects, but rather to concentrate resources on this single volume. Despite its universal scope, Fletcher provides good explanation and illustration of all areas of architectural history, with more detailed sources to be found in over 40 pages of bibliography for further research. It will continue its usefulness beyond the years of study and become an additional aid to everyday practice.

N. E. Bridges is a chartered architect practising in London.

Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture

Editor - Dan Cruickshank
ISBN - 0 7506 2267 9
Publisher - Architectural Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 1,794

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