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Visual Planning and the Picturesque by Nikolaus Pevsner – Edited by Mathew Aitchison

Fitting planning principles for the page - Pevsner and the picturesque

Nikolaus Pevsner is probably best known outside the world of architecture for his tireless tourist perambulations of the Buildings of England series. Generations of architects have been educated by his Pioneers of Modern Design (1936) and Outline of European Architecture (1943), which remarkably remain in print today and, even more remarkably, are still offered up as modern architectural history, rather than historiography.

However, a much lesser known but no less influential role that Pevsner played was on the editorial board of The Architectural Review from 1946 to 1971. It was during this time that a policy of visual re-education was pursued by Hubert de Cronin Hastings, owner of the Architectural Press, which at that time published the AR and its sister magazine, The Architects’ Journal.

Hastings commissioned Pevsner to write Visual Planning and the Picturesque in 1942, when they were both acting editors of the AR while JM Richards was on war service. This book was mostly completed but mysteriously never published.

The book under review, then, has been compiled from the Pevsner archives at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, AR articles published independently, and elsewhere. Largely thanks to Gordon Cullen’s book The Concise Townscape, the issue of townscape is now more aligned with the re-evaluation of the modern movement that occurred in the 1970s.

However, the ideas behind Sharawaggi or Exterior Furnishing or Townscape (the principle appeared under various neologisms) were originally supposed to accommodate modern and historical buildings alike in a picturesque setting.

It was Hastings who initiated this movement. As early as 1944 he wrote in the AR that ‘a national picture-making aptitude has existed among us, and has done for centuries,’ and it was he who suggested that Christopher Hussey’s seminal 1927 book The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View and the editors’ day-to-day work for the AR were really ‘the one and same thing.’

In Visual Planning…, Pevsner would have argued that this sense of medieval planning is the great English contribution to urban design. Just as English law is based on cases rather than a written constitution,

’Pevsner wished to argue that English urban design similarly has no body of theory, but is based on case studies’

The AR was to promote such case studies over the next quarter century, culminating in Hastings’ controversial Manplan issues of 1969-70 (which championed a new style of black-and-white architectural photography) and ultimately Civilia, a collage of modernist masterpieces in Arcadian settings that focus entirely on the visual aspect of planning and ignore the reality of the invisible aspect.

It’s this naivety that exposes Pevsner the planner as the art historian, magazine editor and tourist guide writer that he was - in that everything must result in a picture for the page. Towards the end of his life, Pevsner was criticised by historians such as Manfredo Tafuri, as an example of an operative historian, who wrote history to meet his own goals.

Visual Planning… smacks of such operativity. As such, it should probably have been left in the Getty archives. However, what saves this publication is the excellent introduction by John Macarthur and Mathew Aitchison, which contextualises the manuscript with as much erudition as insight.

Visual Planning and the Picturesque

Author: Nikolaus Pevsner

Edited by Mathew Aitchison

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