Magazine article The Spectator

Beacons in a Squat, Dark Sprawl

Magazine article The Spectator

Beacons in a Squat, Dark Sprawl

Article excerpt

LONDON 5: EAST by Bridget Cherry, Charles O'Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner Yale, £29.95, pp. 864, ISBN 0300107013

In the 1950s Nikolaus Pevsner published London: The Cities of London and Westminster and London: Except the Cities of London and Westminster.

In the current revision of his guides to British architecture, London has been divided into six. This is the final volume to be published, beginning at the ancient City boundary of Aldgate and stretching 15 miles to the border of Essex.

Inside the classic black cover is a brand new book. The research is staggering. The reader expects, and gets, up-to-the-minute notes on Hawksmoor's great churches. But the authors have also looked at blueprints for 1960s bus stations in Redbridge and the 1930s social theory on 'perpendicular drinking', which explains the design of pubs in Dagenham. In an index which is 60 pages in length architects such as Lush and Lester and Plumbe (Rowland) and Harvey are immortalised beside Lutyens and Wren.

But what is remarkable is that the Pevsner approach to describing architecture -- comprehensive in scope, technical and impersonal in style -- continues to divide people. Pevsner-bashing was one of Betjeman's favourite pastimes. The baton was picked up by John Harris in his irresistible memoir of being an architectural historian, No Voice from the Hall (1998). In one story a country-house owner mistakes Sir Nikolaus with his clipboard for the man who had come to read the gas meter.

Another describes the one week each year in which Pevsner would invite all his friends to dinner. A-D came on Monday, E-G on Tuesday, and so on. The jolliest dinner was the year in which the secretary jumbled the alphabetical card index and the Harrises found themselves laughing with the Ls and the Ts.

The opposition is also to do with Pevsner's advocacy of European Modernism -- and, perhaps, the tradition of what Patrick Wright has called 'the English road book'. In the 1930s Batsford Press published a genre in which the rolling English road becomes a personal meditation on past and future, the country and the self. East London continues to inspire this approach in the books of Wright and Iain Sinclair and the films -- just released on DVD -- of William Raban. Pevsner never meandered, or stopped for a pub lunch. 'Facts not opinions', as they used to inscribe over the doorways of Victorian schools.

A year ago we moved from Notting Hill to a flat on the top floor of a block on the Commercial Road. It is where East London begins, but I had only travelled east to go to Sainsbury's or Stansted. This is not a book to be read in an armchair, so on Sunday I tried it out with a walk down the Mile End Road from Aldgate to Bow, and back. It is the drive to the supermarket -- a wide road of market stalls, Bengali discount stores, and takeaway restaurants.

I had never stopped to look at the architecture. But the success of the Pevsner approach is that its ruthless objectivity takes you outside the comfort zone of middle-class architectural tourism.

A dozen guidebooks describe the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as the finest example of an 18th-century complex of factory, house and shop in London. But only Pevsner tells you that the nondescript 1960s Post Office next door is connected by a tunnel to Paddington, then points out the words 'Working Lads Institute' above a nearby doorway. Here, in the 1870s, 13-year-old boys came after work to study or swim. …

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