A 21st Edition for the 21st Century

Managing Editor of Sir Banister Fletcher's Global History of Architecture, Catherine Gregg, on why the time was right to revisit a classic.

20 September 2019

Managing Editor of Sir Banister Fletcher's Global History of Architecture, Catherine Gregg, on why the time is right to revisit a classic.

The landmark publication of the 21st edition of Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture represents a wholesale revision of the book’s structure and content, in a conscious effort to transform what was once a western-centric, potted account into a truly global history of architecture.

From the moment it was first published in 1896, Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture quickly became the go-to survey text for generations of architects, with its author elected president of the RIBA in 1929. Today, 124 years later, various aspects of Banister Fletcher’s thinking about architecture remain relevant. Others however are clearly problematic: his book was a product of its time and place, and through its many editions the western bias implicit in its presentation of architectural development has never been fully addressed.

Adding the word ‘global’ to the book’s title for the first time was a statement of intent from the early stages of the project and expresses our approach – together with the General Editor, Professor Murray Fraser – for this edition. The new title reflects not only the significance of changes made to the book itself but also those that have reshaped the discipline of architectural history over the last 30 years. A 21st edition for the 21st century, the new work brings a thoroughly contemporary understanding to over 5,500 years of architecture across the globe.

Banister Fletcher line drawings from the original editions, illustrating classical Roman architecture

Rather than offering a single narrative, as in previous editions, the new text draws together the distinct voices of 88 international subject experts from the fields of architecture, archaeology and architectural and cultural history, providing a platform for different perspectives and giving each author an individual by-line for the first time.

While each chapter has the same basic structure, we invited the contributors to determine their own approach within this framework, based on their own original research and specialist knowledge. Although the expanse of time and territory covered in a book as ambitious as this one required its division into manageable chronological sections, points of cross-over and overlap were encouraged rather than resisted. Authors were free to determine culturally-specific date ranges within, and sometimes overshooting, the broad sweep of each chronological section.

Brasilia Presidential Palace

When selecting illustrations, we were guided by the same principle of diversity. We aimed to demonstrate the full variety of ways in which architecture is designed, represented and communicated through visual media. All types of architectural drawing are included as well as models, fine art and folk art, prints, cartoons and photographs. A new suite of architectural plans was specially commissioned, and we also repurposed some of Banister Fletcher’s original line drawings. Numerous images illustrating the new edition derive from the RIBA Collections, but we also had to source a great deal from elsewhere given that the collection itself was shaped in the past by a historic western bias.

Carved stucco and tile, Alhambra

The project proved a mammoth task, and a complex brief was complicated further by the additional requirements for simultaneous online publishing. In the 20-odd years since the last edition was published, the field of architectural history has seen significant change, becoming ever more interdisciplinary, multimodal and globally distributed. The new edition seeks to encompass these changes in perspective, revealing the cross-cultural, relational processes through which architecture is made and understood, while also acknowledging that no account can ever be complete.

Sir Banister Fletcher's Global History of Architecture is published by Bloomsbury in partnership with RIBA and the University of London.

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