Pevsner’s archiperversity

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Bottom half of book cover; Max Berg’s 1913 Centenary Hall, Breslau, Germany. (Thames & Hudson)

What are the sources of modern architecture? I recently completed Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design, published by the famous German-turned-Brit architectural historian in 1968. Rarely have so many underlinings arisen in protest against so much dubious archihistori-ography. It’s hard to know where to begin. My post “Sources of modern silliness” looked at earlier passages in the book as I was reading it. The rest lived up to the promise of its early pages. A few weeks later, I still am trying to make heads or tails of Pevsner and his sources.

Modernists love to say that their style of architecture reaches back to the glass and iron of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in 1851. Pevsner’s book looks at how artistic styles such as Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau got tangled up in the strands that nourished modern architecture’s purity of line and expungement of ornament. Sounds kind of dodgy to me. Arts & Crafts caused machine architecture? Art Nouveau caused the purge of decoration from design? I don’t think so. How could this sort of thinking even happen?

Good question. Pevsner writes of the “new style with its reliance on unmitigated right angles”:

The secret, if you are bent on banishing ornament, mouldings, curves altogether, is fine materials and the play of proportions.

Alas, we all know how that worked out.

Pevsner’s thinking seems to be plucked from a strategy of architectural history that is designed to give modern architecture some links to the past, so as to defend it from the charge of unhinged novelty. That is, Corbusier and Mies led modern architecture’s break from classical tradition just as William Morris and Charles Voysey, leaders in the Arts & Crafts movement and that of Art Nouveau, broke from artistic tradition a few decades earlier.

That seems to be the tie-in. But neither Arts & Crafts nor Art Nouveau were quite as detached from broader trends in art as Pevsner tries to suggest. The history of art and architecture was, up to that point, the history, essentially, of creating things by hand. The emphasis on curvature in both the Arts & Craft and Art Nouveau – work that could not be performed by machines – was revived by the Baroque Revival during the late 19th century in all of the arts, but especially in architecture. Pevsner ignores this. Much of it may have been about resistance to the linear qualities of the Neoclassical Revival also under way then, yet it was not really a rejection of broader trends in art or architecture. Rather, it was more an attempt to toy with the curvaceousness of the Baroque, and to carry it into a variety of art forms. Pevsner’s hatred of curves and love for straight lines made it difficult for him to articulate with any success his attempt to jam the square modernist peg into the round hole of late 19th-century artistic conventions.

Yet modern architecture has managed to sell the idea that modernist design rejects the past even as it celebrates its roots in history. How? Well, the two concepts are not wholly irreconcilable, in fact they are an inevitable pairing. But everything has roots in the past. There is nothing truly new under the sun. This truism does not rehabilitate the fallacy of modern architecture’s love/hate relationship with the past. Modernism’s roots in the past, slender and tenuous as they are, do not expiate its rejection of the past.

Historians of modern architecture divide the historical styles into “periods” – such as Gothic, Baroque, Neoclassical, Beaux-Arts, Victorian, Eclectic (a period of revivals) and others. This  enables them to pigeonhole this and that building into a period, or rather a prison cell, at which point modernists think they can throw away the key and argue that buildings of this or that style cannot be built outside of their own period – that is, cannot be built today. At least not without forsaking their “authenticity.”

That is because each style, according to Pevsner and others, reflects its era. How they figure that out when real historians cannot peg the meaning of real periods in history, I don’t know. But if built today, the authenticity of any building that doesn’t look like a slab of glass is undermined. Yet the periods can be subdivided endlessly, which kind of ruins the game. The fact is that architecture does not evolve by distinct steps, and each style is to some extent intermingled with the styles before it, after it and all around it.

Trying to place a building into its proper period is like trying to place one’s foot onto a dot beyond three other tangled up players of the game Twister.

Indeed, throughout Sources, Pevsner constantly pauses to reflect upon the clay feet of his pioneers. He regrets that Morris, Webb and Shaw had not “felt as strongly about the necessity of an original style,” got defensive over Gaillard’s “half-concealed sympathy with the classical past” and mourned Voysey’s “strong period flavor.” He complains that Wagner’s “buildings of those years were less radical,” his subway stations were “a kind of Baroque Art Nouveau,” and his “office buildings and flats are simple, but in their fenestration not untraditional.” Pevsner is pissed off that Lutyens “turned away from the progressive developments and led the retreat into the grand manner.” Macintosh, he says, stooped to “perfectly harmless Ionic capitals.” Even Sullivan himself “loved ornament.” Boo-hoo!

After all, Pevsner could not entirely divorce his favored architects from the artistic milieu in which they worked. The buildings just don’t fit well into the periods they have been assigned by architectural historians.

Periods actually have no real use but to uphold the fallacy that this or that style cannot be built today. They can and they are. Periods are no more than a cynical invention designed to lock in the validity of modern architecture. Intellectually, periods are baloney.

Modern architecture actually has no real ties to the past; its rejection of tradition was an intellectual conceit based on such stupidities as blaming the horrors of World War I on buildings. A dome on a building may symbolize a crown on a king, but you still can’t blame the building for what the king did. This and other phony excuses were hatched by architects seeking a shortcut to a great career. Modern architecture erupted into vogue in the 1920s in Europe, and by 1950 had captured the establishment there and in America lock, stock and barrel. But today it has lost its mojo. Today it must stand on its own, without the bodyguard of lies that has served it for a century.

These hopeful ramblings are my attempt to cobble together an explanation for the puzzling phenomenon of modern architecture. Some readers no doubt have their own ideas of how modern architecture managed to replace a tradition that worked well to build everything from houses to cities. I invite them to share their reaction to this post.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Pevsner’s archiperversity

  1. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    The unmitigated contempt for modernism you courageously express is well deserved. Any apologists for modernism still out there must answer Quinlan Terry’s argument that modern architecture is, in truth, an anti-architecture. That is to say, not even really an architecture.

    Milton W. Grenfell, arch.


    • That’s right, Milton, and bless you for your kind words. I have not read QT’s argument to that effect, but I am very familiar with Nikos Salingaros’s argument, which is actually called Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction. It is marvelously to the point.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Love it. Thanks for the thoughts!


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