'Date your District', 1942: Modern 'Visual Re-education' and the Perception of Victorian Architecture in the Architectural Review
In 1940 and 1941, James M. Richards and Nikolaus Pevsner - both writing under pseudonyms - published a series entitled 'Criticism' in the Architectural Review examining Modern buildings. Subsequently, in 1942, Pevsner started a series called the 'Treasure Hunt' which discussed built examples of Victorian architecture encouraging readers to 'Date your District'. This project aims to investigate this duality of looking at both the new and the old, and the attempt to visually educate readers by guiding their gaze verbally. It thus links questions of perception to both modernism and heritage exploring how the 'new' influences attitudes to the 'old'.
The medium chosen for this investigation is that of written criticism as published in the Architectural Review in the early 1940s. The magazine is generally acknowledged to have played a crucial role in the dissemination of the Modern Movement in Britain - and with it a new way of looking. Indeed, in 1947, its editors listed 'visual re-education' as one of the primary tasks of their work. Simultaneously, and throughout their writing at the time, they draw parallels between stylistic developments taking place in architecture and those in the realm of criticism. As modernism had done away with historicism and eclectic styles in buildings, it had also rendered Victorian connoisseurship, or 'literary' criticism, inadequate. If, as the editors of the Architectural Review claimed, the Modern Movement led to new ways of looking at buildings, how did this visual 're-education' influence the perception of Victorian architecture? How did the visual and critical focus on function and plan shape the ways in which the unloved buildings of the recent past were looked at?
Pevsner's writing, in the Review and elsewhere, shows distinctly Modern characteristics in its attempt to mediate an immediate and untainted impression of the described buildings far opposed to associative Victorian word painting. The question that this project will explore is whether this style of writing can be linked to a specific way of looking which was introduced and propagated by the designers and critics of the Modern Movement. Moreover, it will argue that design, writing and perceptual modes are inherently linked, driving each other forward.
Anne Hultzsch teaches architectural history at the Bartlett (UCL) where she has recently also submitted her PhD (funded by the RIBA and AHRC). Trained as an architect in Munich and Rome, she has practiced in Vienna, Rotterdam and London and holds an MSc in Architectural History (UCL). Her PhD 'An Archaeology of Perception: Verbal Descriptions of Architecture in Travel Writings' links the history of perception to that of language arguing that the experience of any built space is, and has been, shaped by the ways found to express and communicate it. She has presented her work at national and international conferences and recent publications include the chapter 'Thinking in Metaphor: Figurative Conceptualising in John Evelyn's Diary and John Ruskin's Stones of Venice', in Writing Design: Words and Objects, ed. Grace Lees-Maffei (Berg, 2011 forthcoming).
Anne Hultzsch, August 2011