The Architectural Review was founded in 1896, on the cusp of the 20th century. The cover of the first issue bore the legend ‘a magazine for the artist and craftsman’, though this subsequently became ‘artist, archaeologist, designer and craftsman’, thus firmly setting its sights on Victorian polymaths everywhere
Arts and Crafts
The earliest issues were large in format and plainly intended to make the discussion of architecture visual as well as verbal. In those early years, the AR was very much an Arts and Crafts organ inspired by John Ruskin and AWN Pugin, the movement’s great patriarchs.
It slowly changed with the zeitgeist to become more devoted to classical architecture and conscious of stirring international developments. By 1900 the magazine could boast that it was ‘the only magazine in the British Empire dealing with the artistic, as distinguished from the business side, of architecture’, a description that still, curiously, rings true today.
The first decade saw a long-running series, The Practical Exemplar of Architecture, which was intended, with photographs and measured drawings, to provide architects with a universal pattern book illustrating various architectural styles of the day.
Re-launch - 1913
The 1913 re-launch took advantage of advances in the quality of photographic reproduction, heralding a new and lavish format, with whole page photographs illustrating the great works of a confident Empire.
During World War I the AR set itself the task of documenting the worst destruction in France and Belgium, and was chosen by the government to be the official publisher of coloured pictures of the decorations of London for the peace celebrations of 1919.
1920s and 1930s
The 1920s and 1930s saw the AR engage more actively with new architectural movements. It proposed ideas and plans for the League of Nations; it reprinted Louis Sullivan’s speeches verbatim and commissioned pieces from Le Corbusier, Ernö Goldfinger, Berthold Lubetkin and Walter Gropius. Indeed, it was at the AR that Nikolaus Pevsner, the famous German art and architecture historian, began his illustrious career.
During this period the AR became much more lively and diverse with the arrival of John Betjeman, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, new authors, idiosyncrasy and modernism. By the end of the 1930s under the helm of JM Richards, who edited the AR between 1937 and 1971 (by far the longest tenure of any of its 14 editors), the AR’s reputation was established as the leading English language architectural magazine, with a worldwide constituency of readers.
In the post-war years of new ideas, its reputation for scholarship grew and Pevsner was succeeded by a young Colin Rowe, who made memorable contributions to the magazine.
After the strong foreign flavour of the war and its immediate aftermath, the 1950s witnessed a shift back to the conscientious efforts of British architects to rebuild a shattered nation. Reyner Banham (who had studied under Pevsner) joined in 1952, and made an almost immediate mark on the magazine that seemed to him ‘rather fusty and run by elderly men’.
In its Townscape, Subtopia and Outrage sections, pioneered by Ian Nairn and Gordon Cullen, the AR campaigned vigorously against the curse of mediocre philistinism and celebrated the apotheosis of modernism.
1960s and 1970s
But the 1960s brought an end to such certainties and the magazine faced increasing commercial peril. The Manplan series of the late ’60s was designed to reposition the AR at the heart of debate, setting out to ambitiously correct the ills of Britain with huge (and hugely expensive) photographic coverage of its problems, complemented by verbose essays on suggested solutions.
These can be seen today as an analogy of the hubris of the profession, whose architects had begun to believe that they could build a new society by the imposition of enlightened architecture.
During the ’70s the AR descended into a state of self-critical crisis typical of the end of modernism and exacerbated by its claims to be a straightforward record and not a mouthpiece of the avant-garde.
By the 1980s it had regained its focus under Peter Davey, shifting into a theme-based format, in which buildings were grouped by function or idea. It was during this period that the AR reclaimed its intellectual and visual superiority, with special issues on the environment, landscape, art and ecology, and architecture and climate, indicating a prescient engagement with environmental issues.
But the depth of discussion given to buildings such as Lloyd’s in London and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong also made clear that the latter part of the century belonged to Rogers, Foster and the lords of High Tech.
Now, a decade into the new century, pluralism, parametricism and plagiarism reign, though the AR is still sceptical of fashions and fads, believing architecture to be, at its core, a socially responsible art.
As with all media, it becomes impossible to tell how far the AR has accurately recounted the preoccupations and ideals of several generations, and how far it has defined and shaped them. Yet though over time it has (sometimes often radically) changed in format, design and personnel, it still maintains a spirit of constancy and continuity. And as the AR’s immense archive is gradually digitised, its deep historical roots will hopefully inform, enlighten and reconnect with new generations of readers.