The Radcliffe Camera, viewed from St Mary the Virgin’s church tower

A magnificent update — for good and ill

Only one with a slightly deranged confidence could ever have attempted it

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A question for your next Christmas quiz: which knighted British architectural historian went to the same school as the composer Richard Wagner? Answer: Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–83), the émigré German scholar who became one of the most influential public intellectuals in post-war Britain.

Pevsner went through a variety of self-reinventions along the way: from secular Jew to Christian convert, early enthusiast for Nazism to anti-Hitler polemicist in wartime Britain, 1920s champion of Modernism to 1960s ally of Betjeman in the campaign to save Victorian Gothic. Both he and Wagner attended the celebrated Thomasschule in Leipzig, albeit nine decades apart.

Schooling was not the only thing the two had in common. Both started projects in their mid-thirties so huge in scale and in timespan for their fulfilment that only those with a slightly deranged confidence in their own talent and health could ever have attempted them. Wagner was 35 in 1848 when he began the vast 16-hour music-drama, the Ring cycle, that would occupy him for much of the next three decades.

Pevsner was 33 when he embarked on a project of even more gigantic size: to describe, county by county, every extant building in England of any historical or architectural merit in succinct but scholarly detail.

First planned in 1945 and published by Penguin Books, The Buildings of England (soon known as the Pevsner Guides) eventually ran to 58 volumes between 1951 and 1974, of which Pevsner completed an astonishing 32 single-handedly and a further ten with a co-author. A process of revision by other hands has gone on since the 1960s.

Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East, Simon Bradley, Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood (Yale University Press, £45)

Pevsner’s volume covering the city of Oxford and the county’s south-east is amongst the very last of the original series to be revised. It is thus nearly half a century since the master’s text (with assistance from Jennifer Sherwood for buildings outside Oxford) first appeared in 1974. In the intervening period, few of our historic city centres have acquired more new buildings — many prompted by the University’s need to accommodate its ever-expanding student body.

The reviser’s task is therefore daunting, and Simon Bradley rises impressively to the challenge. Although his pages retain much of the earlier text, his book is far more than the original Pevsner with new-builds attached. The variety of buildings surveyed is now much wider, and there is a new alertness to how buildings are enriched by the decorative arts, with particular attention given to church furnishings and stained glass.

Inevitably, two-thirds of the volume is devoted to the extraordinarily rich architectural legacy of Oxford University’s 43 constituent colleges and halls. Whether you wish to know the precise dimensions of Christ Church Hall (115x40ft) or the carver credited with the superb reredos in Trinity College Chapel (“one hesitates to think of anybody but Grinling Gibbons himself”), the Pevsner–Bradley Oxford will be the first point of reference for scholar and day-tripper alike.

With so many additions to Oxford’s building stock, though, the reviser has his work cut out. At least until the early 2000s, modernism reigned supreme as the style of choice. College and University authorities, beholden to the doctrine that this was the only style “of our time”, put up a succession of boxy, mostly concrete constructions, some of gargantuan scale.

Celebrity architects — James Stirling, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, to name but a few — have all strutted their stuff on the University stage in recent decades, to mixed reviews. Lucky is the street in the city centre where some grey concrete structure does not obtrude and oppress, none more so than the University’s administration building for most of the last half-century in Wellington Square: Oxford’s evocation of Stalin-era East Berlin.

A predictable revolt has gained strength over the last two decades, with a growing number of colleges — amongst them Magdalen, Lady Margaret Hall and Trinity — turning to traditional architecture of brick and stone. In many places, though, the damage is already done. The insertion of new buildings of stunning insensitivity has left the fabric of many colleges permanently marred.

Yet the controversies attending much of Oxford’s post-1970 building spree barely ruffle the placid surface of Bradley’s prose. Discreet guide that he is, he only occasionally ventures an opinion on matters aesthetic. Foster & Partners’ headquarters for Oxford’s social sciences, the Manor Road Building (1995–96), is ticked off for a “grand” staircase that ends in “bathos”. Landscaping at Pembroke College is said to “run amok”. On the positive side, the Saïd Business School by Dixon Jones is esteemed “calm and well-judged”.

For the most part, however, Bradley’s adjectival palette is one of studied ambiguity: a recent laboratory is “chunky”; an unbuilt scheme by Foster & Partners at St Peter’s College is “utopian”. Even the “glinting stack of glass drums” that constitute Herzog & de Meuron’s Blavatnik School of Government (2013–15), one of Oxford’s most expensive recent buildings, is merely “unearthly”. Whether “unearthly”, “utopian” or “chunky” are good things, our guide is too circumspect to say.

Such reticence never constrained Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. Whilst he, too, offered aesthetic judgements only sparingly, it is his one-liners that provide the book with its most memorable aperçus. Some are merely waspish, as when Pevsner dismisses the façade of Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre (1664–69) as “a beginner’s job, just a little confused”; or Tom Tower at Christ Church, another Wren commission, as a structure “few would praise … for its beauty”.

Other Pevsnerian pronouncements seem to have been penned after a rather too vinous lunch. Is it really true that “the best architectural sculpture of the Gothic centuries is concentrated at Dorchester”? So much for Laon or Chartres. Is James Gibbs’ Radcliffe Camera (1737–49) in fact “England’s most accomplished domed building”? (Yet another put-down of Wren.)

Pevsner’s highest commendation goes not to anything by Wren, Hawksmoor or Gibbs, but to a 1960s library by Britain’s leading exponent of post-war Brutalism, Sir Leslie Martin (architect of the Royal Festival Hall), with help from Colin St John Wilson (of new British Library fame).

The steps of the St Cross Building

Confronted by the vision of loveliness that is the St Cross Building (1961–64), Pevsner is for once extravagant in his praise. This structure, a featureless composition of “sheer windowless cubes” and endless beige brick, is “the first post-war University building in Oxford of international calibre”, a “great leap” by which provincial Oxford could at last bound forward towards the Internationalism of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. About the “open staircase rising into the heart of the building”, Pevsner is rhapsodic. “It has the splendour of Persepolis.”

Readers can judge for themselves the splendour of these concrete steps. Such heady utterances nevertheless reveal an aspect of the Pevsner Guides where their impact on British architecture has been less than benign. Concurrent with (and in part animating) his Stakhanovite research was a strongly proselytising purpose: not just to inform the British public about the buildings of the past, but to instil through deftly-placed encomia the doctrine that modernism was the only true way to the future and that anything else was passé or, worse, “pastiche”.

Pevsner cannot, of course, be held responsible for the bad post-war architecture which abounds in contemporary Britain. Still, he and the sheer authoritativeness of his Buildings of Britain were highly influential. For much of the period following 1950 they helped make the weather in which most planners and architects worked: a climate that rendered intellectually defensible the destruction of whole tracts of ancient city centres; the compromising of so many Oxford colleges with insensitive, unloved concrete quads; and the conversion of distinctive historic thoroughfares, such as Oxford’s Cornmarket, into the characterless, litter-strewn canyons we encounter today.

Simon Bradley’s new edition of Oxford and the South-East is a magnificent feat of scholarship that should find its place in the Christmas stocking of every Oxonian student and don. It is nonetheless a measure of how much more diversified and open is the current debate on context and style that Pevsner’s half-century-old trumpeting of modernism, still echoing in The Buildings of Britain, now seems a risible blast from a doctrinaire, concrete-loving past.

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