Architecture is a public art, but public intellectuals tend to engage with more abstract stuff. The style-wars ructions excited by our new King nearly 40 years ago have been settled by gravity, but intelligent discussion about what makes a great building is still a rarity, especially in the Ministry of Levelling Up, where there is muddle. On the one hand, ‘generic’ is anathematised; on the other, ‘design codes’ and building regulations which stifle the original thinking necessary to good design are encouraged. Perhaps the Ministry should put in a therapeutic bulk order for Hugh Pearman’s About Architecture. ‘If these be the times, then this must be the man,’ as Andrew Marvell said of Oliver Cromwell.
Pearman was the architecture critic of the Sunday Times for 30 years. No great prose stylist or wit, no street-fighting controversialist, he was nonetheless a well-informed reporter who did his dutiful site visits and wrote columns largely free from the gobbledygook which architects exchange when hotboxing in creative huddles. Accordingly, the introduction of this book is admirably lucid, and the author makes plain his interest in writing simply and clearly for the educated general reader (if such freaks actually exist).
The schema is inspired by a fine trio: Paul Simon, Neil MacGregor and Nikolaus Pevsner. Ever since ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’ in 1975 and A History of the World in One Hundred Objects in 2010, publishers have found this tick-box formula irresistible, although it is now becoming hackneyed, and frankly allows an author to write a book without the structural anguish and literary hard yards of really writing a book.
From Pevsner’s half-century-old Mellon Lectures in Washington, Pearman has borrowed the idea of looking at building types – a fresh concept in 1970. Pevsner had 17 such types, but Pearman has 11: civic, houses, education, offices, industry, transport, museums, performance, religion, retail and gardens.