The Twentieth Century Society

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Book reviews

Classic Book: Sir Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture (1896)

Reviewed by Murray Fraser

First published in 1896 by the then-elderly Banister Fletcher, professor of architecture at Kings College London, and his son, Banister Flight Fletcher, A History of Architecture soon became such a well-known standard text book that it was known simply as ‘Banister Fletcher’. Famously a present given to those embarking on an architectural education, the standing joke was that no student opened their copy.

The work’s most enduring component over the decades was its remarkable line drawings, conceived by the Fletchers as a tool for the neutral, comparative analysis of buildings from a given period, architect or constructional method. Many were canny re-drawings of plans, sections and views taken from other learned tomes. Yet the pretence at ‘neutrality’ was inevitably flawed, in the choosing of what and how to draw, and indeed what to leave out.

From the start, the text was serious and learned. Later editions were gradually expanded, but it was not substantially re-written, and its straightforward descriptive manner, which often lapsed into lengthy lists of examples, became increasingly old-fashioned. Coverage was also uneven: fulsome when it came to (say) medieval English cathedrals, but weak on non-Western architecture, or anything after 1800.

This leads us to the work’s real flaw: its pro-Western and indeed colonialist mentality. The first edition was steeped in late-Victorian myths of empire. It covered nothing outside Europe and the (ancient) Middle East. The 4th edition (1901) added some other architectural traditions under the dismissive title of ‘The Non-Historical Styles’. Non-Western architecture was likewise caricatured as the stunted lower branches on the ‘Tree of Architecture’ included in the 5th and 6th editions (1905 and 1921). This attitude was partially tackled by later General Editors, and a centenary 20th edition was published in 1996 under Dan Cruickshank, yet their good intentions did little to resolve the fundamental problem. A fully post-colonial reworking planned by John McKean in the mid-2000s never happened, and post-colonialism itself has since been absorbed into broader concepts of globalisation.

A tentative idea to reinvigorate the work ten years ago was embraced by the Banister Fletcher Trust, and – although initially sceptical – I was encouraged to become General Editor. Pointedly retitled as Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture, we rewrote it completely. Over half of the text is now given to non-Western architecture; there is a wider spectrum of drawings and photographs; and each chapter is written by a leading expert on that topic.

The outcome – one million words in two volumes written by 88 experts – is the most comprehensive survey of global architecture to date, and is also online via the Bloomsbury Architecture Library.

The new ‘Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture’ will be reviewed in a future issue.


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