Book review: Visual Planning and the Picturesque by Nikolaus Pevsner

Visual Planning and the Picturesque

While not truly a “lost” Pevsner book, this represents a monumental effort by editor Mathew Aitchison to pull together a huge amount of material compiled for a book on Picturesque town planning by Nikolaus Pevsner. While Pevsner intended to publish the material as a book, he never finished the manuscript and much of the material was published as short pieces in the Architectural Review instead.

Visual Planning and the Picturesque is divided into three sections. Part I is titled “mostly presented in pictures” and consists of the analysis of English townscapes through Pevsner’s photographs, historical sources and maps.  His focus alternates between Oxford, London and Bath. Part II is titled “mostly presented in quotations” and includes a variety of historical sources on townscape with commentary by Pevsner. Part III, titled “occasionally submitting solutions” was assembled from materials compiled by Pevsner. The Editor’s notes indicate his intent for this section was less clear, though it is established Pevsner intended to addresses 20th century issues through the lens the English Picturesque tradition.

Parts I and II were nearly completed during the 1940s, concurrent with the Architectural Review‘s “Townscape” campaign. Pevsner worked for the AR during the period and ended up publishing a large portion of the material for this book in the magazine. Part III includes many of the photos indicated for inclusion in his notes but without specific indication and an assortment of texts that are on topic, but as Pevsner had not written a draft for this section Aitchison’s interpretation of his intent is responsible for its composition. The heavy reliance on interpretation for Part III is definitely the book’s Achille’s heel. While the material in the section is, on many occaisions, fascinating, its inclusion is mostly conjecture on the part of Aichison. He does his best to interpret Pevsner’s intent but at the same time, it feels most like assembled notes than a completed chapter.

What is particularly striking about the book, and what makes it timely today, is Pevsner’s appreciation for historic principles while at the same time being a strong proponent of modern architecture. His analysis looks at the picturesque principles of planning but does not prescribe the literal insertion of picturesque buildings into the landscape. This is spelled out in some detail in John Macarthur and Aitchison’s section at the beginning titled “Pevsner’s Townscape.” Pevsner’s view allows for the appreciation of contemporay buildings in the context of the old and is separate from both the high modernists, who preferred to work from a cleared site, and the historicists of today who make up the New Urbanist movement. This point of view allows him to alternately praise the pedestrian nature of central London and hold up LCC housing in Roehampton (contemporary at the time of his writing) as a “masterpiece of post-war residential design” that sits squarely in the Picturesque tradition.

Pevsner’s book is not for everyone. It gives a look into his working process (many of his notes are included in the book) and sheds light on a movement and era that is somewhat forgotten today. For those who are already partial to Pevsner’s work this is an essential volume to complete a collection of his writing. Alternately, it is a good source for thinking about contemporary planning in the UK. Revisiting the ideas of the Townscape movement and the Picturesque as conveyed in this book could be a way out of the dead-ends planning has run into in the past decade. Incorporating traditional ideas of English planning need not result in Poundbury.

By Mark

Mark is an architect in San Francisco.


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