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Enough to make a reader go weak at the knees: Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Bjorn Christian Torrisson CC BY-SA 4.0)

If one did not know any better, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that “Christopher Tadgell” was a convenient nom-de-plume cloaking the identities of a substantial team of eminent architectural historians. After all, and assuming my maths is correct, these seven sturdy paperback volumes, which were originally published in hardback between 2007 and 2015 (and are indeed still available in that form at £75 each), run to a daunting 6,182 pages, with no fewer than 11,776 colour and 2,206 black-and-white illustrations.

It is vital to state at the outset that it is not just its sheer scale that makes this such an astonishingly ambitious production. Christopher Tadgell has not confined his overview of architecture to the post-antique European tradition, as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner did in An Outline of European Architecture, which was first published in 1943 and subsequently much modified and expanded. On the contrary, Architecture in Context also embraces both antiquity and the rest of the world with open arms. In that sense, and for all that the approach is profoundly different, his magnum opus is far closer to Sir Banister Fletcher’s large-scale but single-volume History of Architecture, which was first published as long ago as 1905, and then heavily revised in 1921. Banister Fletcher — as the book has come to be known — aspired to cover the entire globe, but it may come as no great surprise, in view of its venerable antiquity, if it betrays what now feels like a heavily Eurocentric bias. In stark contrast, Tadgell is effortlessly even-handed.

Anyone embarking upon an all-embracing project of this kind is virtually bound to have what may be described as a centre of gravity, the area of their chosen field of study they know best. Most encouragingly and almost miraculously, in Tadgell’s case he is celebrated for his expertise in two radically different areas, namely French architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries and the architecture of the Indian subcontinent. His contribution to Baroque and Rococo Architecture and Decoration, published as long ago as 1978, in which his co-authors were Anthony Blunt and Alastair Laing, was devoted to the former, while his History of Architecture in India of 1990 is the classic work on the latter. At the same time, it soon becomes clear that Tadgell has travelled incredibly widely over the decades to see as many of the actual buildings as humanly possible, and indeed to photograph them. This is the diametric opposite of a vision based upon an armchair — or computer screen — tour of the planet. 

The approach adopted here involves what the books themselves describe as setting the buildings in question “within their political, technological, social and cultural contexts, exploring architecture not only as the development of form but as an expression of the civilization within which it evolved”. In practice, the happy consequence is that both history and works of art, and above all paintings and sculptures, are by no means ignored in this magisterial overview. At the same time, it cannot be underlined too strongly that Tadgell’s ability to see the bigger picture is unfailingly based upon a highly detailed consideration of individual buildings and their creators. Thus, Hagia Sofia is accorded no fewer than 12 pages and 13 illustrations, while the section on Palladio rates 22 pages and a mighty 90 illustrations.

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