A Short Guide To
Architectural Guidebooks
by Adam Sobolak


When we speak of "architectural guides" in the contemporary sense, truly, all roads lead from the Buildings Of England series, launched by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in 1951 and still going strong.

yorkshire  nottinghamshire  london docklands

To this day, the "Pevsners" impress not only through their scholarly calibre, but through an ultra-comprehensive and egalitarian scope which few architectural guides have come close to matching; not only do they place the "ancient" and the "modern" on an inherently equal plane, but the Scunthorpes are not silently shunned on behalf of the Salisburys, i.e. they're guides to all of the built culture of the British Isles (a far cry from the familiar tourist-guide habit of deeming "industrial" towns as "not worth our interest"). While this omni-directional egalitarianism is partially born out of that fascinating "operative" historiographical period when art historians such as Pevsner, Giedion, Wittkower were virtually fellow travellers in the "Modernist project", the actual act, the immediacy, of researching for and creating the guides appears to have been, wittingly or unwittingly, even more of a scope-opener for Pevsner and his collaborators--one feels that in the process of creation, an awful lot of England, and an awful lot of ways (immediate, or latent) of seeing and beholding England, exploded into view. As it does for those of us who choose to sensuously "perambulate" (that wonderful descriptive verb for the architectural traveller!) with our Pevsners in tow--or even without. Hypothetically, in the Pevsner spirit, we can be the well-conditioned perambulator anywhere, even in alleged dystopia. The Pevsner guides, in short, set, or opened the way to, the optimum standard for intelligent architectural beholding--a standard which, in practice, has all too often been ignored or ill-understood.

Pevsner London

The built-in breadth of scope and flexibility of the Pevsners have also allowed them to transcend, though subsequent editions, their creator's supposed "discredited" Modernist biases, despite the attempts by subsequent generations of British architects and architecture buffs to take the series' idiosyncracies to task. In fact, the more problematic idiosyncracies are of format (born, admittedly, from mid-c20 Penguin "pocket book" roots) rather than of ideology, and explain why the series hasn't really translated outside their native geography; maps which provide little other than place names, a bare albeit well-selected minimum of photographs, and text that can seem dense and turgid--especially with the disorienting absence of key-entering--to all but the most well-conditioned Anglophile. As armchair reading, a Pevsner guide can be a tough slog for the uninitiated; Michelins or Access Guides, they aren't (and sadly, to translate the Pevsners into a more "user-friendly" format would seem like a slap in the face of tradition).

WPA Nebraska

Besides, fashioned as it is for the Anglo-European physical/cultural context, the raw Pevsner format would perhaps seem like much ado about nothing within the freewheeling North American context; you can't properly "perambulate" in a souped-up '64 Mustang (though it's fun to try; Reyner Banham tried, and oh, how he tried). That said, the United States did produce a series that, in its self-reflective qualities, formed an interesting and far more mythic parallel to the Pevsner guides, and it came a generation earlier; the WPA Guides. It may be seen as a vivid statement of a Jeffersonian concept of liberty that the WPAs transcended the bounds of an orthodox architectural (or, even, in the conventional sense, "tourist") guide--and in so doing, they strangely anticipate today's broader, vernacular/anthropology-conscious "cultural landscape" concerns. But on a melancholy note, rather than offering versatile, adaptable frameworks a la Pevsner, the WPAs wound up as victims of their own mythology; poignant period pieces, portraits of a lost era preserved in amber, an era pulverized by the changed scale of post-WWII American culture. To try updating or echoing the WPA Guides today would be like mocking history.

WPA Key West

(photo courtesy Findlay and Bing)


Pevsner and WPA

America: the first wave

AIA Guide to New York City

David Gebhard: America's Pevsner

Goldberger, Banham, and Moore (and more).

Buffalo: Vindication

Chicago: Maturity

The Buildings of the United States series

London + Vienna + Berlin = Cartesian Europe

One Vancouver, many Montréals

Toronto: Opportunity

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