Marvellous architecture

March 8, 1996

A Compendium of Pevsner's Buildings of England on Compact Disc, Compiled by Michael Good, Oxford University Press (+44 1865 56767), Pounds 295 + VAT ISBN 019 2682210, Windows CD

The series of books The Buildings of England by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was compiled between 1945 and 1974. The books describe the most notable churches, public buildings and private houses in England. The 46 volumes are a unique achievement assessing both historically and aesthetically every building of architectural interest in the country. In order to complete his task, Pevsner was obliged to keep his descriptions brief, but part of their appeal is the inclination towards his personal preferences and idiosyncrasies.

The aim of A Compendium of Pevsner's Buildings of England on Compact Disc is to provide an electronic index to 42 volumes of the series. The remaining four, which cover Greater London, are not yet included but should be in a later release. This electronic work is not a multimedia database. There are no pictures of the buildings, and the original descriptive text from the books is omitted. The CD-Rom is simply an index to the content of the books. This may disappoint many users and, coupled with the relatively high price, limits this disc to serious researchers. Nevertheless, the disc does allow complex searches to be performed quickly. Compared with using the printed works, it could save many hours of painstaking research.

The comprehensiveness of the original books means that finding information can be frustrating. As each volume covers a county or similar geographical area, with place-names within the volume ordered alphabetically, some prior knowledge is needed. Tapping into the hidden resources of the books is one of the primary purposes of the index. Pevsner proposed a card index system many years ago, but to do that by traditional means was impractical and uneconomic. However, the unpublished results have become the core of this CD-Rom database.

The database is in two parts, category records and name records, each of which can be searched. A category search would specify building types or features, and a name search would specify an architect or owner, for example. To put the CD-Rom to the test, I searched on my home town of Wellingborough.

The main screen is laid out as a data card with two tabs at the top to switch between category and name records. The first field to select is Volume and a drop-down list gives all of the titles of the original books, which mostly correspond to counties prior to the local government reorganisation of 1974. I selected Northamptonshire, published in 1973. There is also an option to select All Volumes, but you are warned that the resultant search may take some time. The category list then allows selection from Religious Buildings (churches etc.), Church Furnishings and Monuments, Secular Buildings (public), Secular Buildings (domestic) and Other categories. A plus sign in front of an entry, when clicked, will expand that item into a list of subcategories.

The next field to enter is the place name. The drop-down list gives a long A to Z of names, but start typing Wellingborough and the item in the list tracks each letter as it is entered. You quickly come to the name without typing the whole thing.

Next the period may be specified. The options on the drop-down list range from Saxon/Pre-Conquest up to Post 1910. Now Wellingborough is not noted for its architecture, ancient or modern, but has certainly been a settlement for several hundred years. So, what architectural gems have survived the Arndale Shopping Centre and other 1960s and 1970s developments? Although a search on the Saxon period revealed no entries, moving on to Norman resulted in the first record - the church of All Hallows in the market square. The full record gives the address and grid reference, together with a page number reference to the book and a brief note stating that the south doorway dated from this period. A further search, this time without specifying a period, revealed a total of 91 records. These contain several other churches, such as St Mary's, designed by Sir Ninian Comper c. 1930; assorted schools (including my own, built in 1930 with additions between 1963 and 1965 which I recall being built) and domestic properties. Being a champion of modernism, Pevsner also noted a supermarket (1959-60) and telephone exchange (1968-1971).

I remembered from my school days that there is a Saxon tower somewhere in the county but the place name escaped me. No problem - a search on religious buildings in the Saxon period came up with 12 entries from which I recognised All Saints in Earls Barton - with more detailed notes this time: "W tower, late Saxon: long-and-short work/blank arcading/lesenes in triangular and X-shaped patterns/doorways, windows and bell-openings".

Any of the text may be saved, printed out, or copied and pasted. The cross-reference feature allows you to find all of the other records attached to a particular building. For All Saints, Earls Barton, there were 11 other records which detailed the later features of the church through the Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular periods up to modern times (restoration c. 1868-78 and a painted screen panel from 1935 by Henry Bird). Although the records are short on description, losing the charm of Pevsner's original text, the information is quite comprehensive.

The CD-Rom is an invaluable resource for serious architectural research. Despite my initial disappointment at the disc's lack of descriptive and pictorial content, it is an invaluable index to the books, performing this task admirably, and can be recommended to anyone who has cause to refer regularly to the printed volumes.

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