Arts: A Remarkable Book about Architecture

I have been buying books at library sales in the past few years, mostly on the subjects of art and architecture which are my favorites.

I recently purchased a book for just $1 that is priceless, the most amazing publication that I have ever seen. It is called A History of ArchitectureOn the Comparative Method published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. My copy comes from 1963 but the first edition of the book was published in 1896. The author was Sir Banister Fletcher who served as the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects 1929-31.

Anything that you ever wanted to know about architecture is in this publication. Not just photographs and text, but detailed diagrams and measurements of every great building and style in the Western/European canon from Ancient Greece through Byzantine Christian and on to Gothic cathedrals then to the Italian, Dutch and French Renaissance and forward. Spanish Medieval? Yes. German Romanesque? Got it. This book even includes a two-page composite diagram of 62 buildings by the legendary English architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Here it is:

Every building is numbered from the printed key at the bottom of the page.

This Wren foldout is just one of the hundreds of scrupulous illustrations in this 1,200 page book detailing architecture of every type with floor plans, building profiles, bird’s-eye views and cutaways; explanatory illustrations of windows, tabernacles, pulpits, balustrades, turrets, brackets, reliquaries, gables, chimneys, vases, tombs, gates, reredos, cantoria, fountains, arcades, domes, mouldings, capitals, porches and other details; and even precise diagrams and measurements of six different types of Ionic columns from Ancient Greek temples and how each was integrated into the overall structure.

If you want to know the actual appearance and dimensions of the historic 4th century BC Temple of Artemis at Ephesus it is in this book. This Greek temple is long gone except for some minimal column remnants but it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in its day. The columns were 54 feet tall, or like a five-storey building. Note the tiny human figure in white, to show the scale, between the two center columns of the temple:

There were two Ephesus temples on the same site; the first one burned (actually its wooden roof burned and the structure then collapsed) and was rebuilt. And naturally this book shows the column dimensions and styles of both temples.

The index alone is 91 pages; the glossary is 20 pages. The book is heavy because it’s printed on high-quality clay-coated paper to support the superb illustrations and photos. It even has a musty smell, as if it belongs in a fine library. It explains everything with clarity and precision. Here are just two sentences about Renaissance architecture:

‘The Renaissance movement, which began in Italy early in the fifteenth century, created a break in the continuous evolution of European architecture which, springing from the Roman and proceeding through Early Christian and Romanesque, had, during the Middle Ages, developed into Gothic in each country on national lines. Italy, which was still rich in her ancient Roman monuments, was naturally the pioneer in the Renaissance movement, especially as the Gothic style had never take firm root in a country which always had clung to her old traditions.’

Wonderful. The character of Belgian and Dutch Gothic architecture is described as originating in this way:

‘The Carolingian chapels of the Valkhof at Nijmegen, the eleventh and twelfth-century churches at Nivelles, Soignies and Liege in Belgium, and Utrecht and Maastricht in Holland and, above all, the great traipsal and five-towered cathedral at Tournai established the Romanesque in the Netherlands.’

Wow. Every detail is carefully accounted for. This kind of scholarly writing jumps off of every single page. The Tournai cathedral is described by Fletcher as being made of “black Tournai marble”. Cool… Five towers? It must be the only one. The book is constantly evocative. It is a fount of information that keeps you reading and looking.

If you want to know about the complexities of vaulting, in which cathedral ceilings are arched, there is a detailed explanation of different types like Norman vaulting, decorated vaulting and perpendicular vaulting with exact measurements for these examples on a diagram page.

The mighty St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome (1506-1626) is not only diagrammed over several pages, but three earlier design proposals by three different architects are included at the lower left in this two-page spread:

There is an entire page devoted to side-by-side illustrations of 12 different types of buttresses and six flying buttresses, each labeled for its separate cathedral. Another page shows diagrams of cowlings, fonts and “sedilia”. And if you don’t know what sedilia are you can just refer to the Glossary of Architectural Terms (they are masonry seats for priest that are built into walls).

If you would like to see parapets, gargoyles, crestings and crockets in Medieval architecture, there is a full page of detailed illustrations. On the very next page are diagrams of crosses, finials, bosses, corbels and pendants from the same period. Heck, I never even knew the names of these things, yet here they are clear as day and beautifully described. The line drawings show them in precise detail.

There are hundreds of excellent black-and-white photographs too, every one flawless and perfectly lit with no distracting shadows or compositional shortcomings which is quite a feat considering the structural complexity of most of these buildings. Every type of architecture is pictured, and as the photos are paired with text and diagrams we get the clearest understanding possible of historical architecture in one source.

How about 22 photographs of detailed models of English cathedrals side-by-side, in the exact same format? It shows how these cathedrals compared to one another in scale, style and appearance. Here are four of the models:

Besides cathedrals and Greek temples there are intimate descriptions of castles, theaters, colleges, commercial buildings, palazzos, civic buildings, mansions, manor houses, chateaux and even Medieval inns (maybe someday I will stay at the Fox & Hounds. Just imagine its thousand-year legacy…) The last 200 pages of the book focus on 19th and 20th century architecture, including American.

The text is superb. Every word has been exactingly chosen, researched and printed without error. Every structure is accurately dated. It is fascinating to note how many years were required to complete some of these buildings, for example the Burgos cathedral in Spain is listed as built in 1221-1457. That’s 236 years(!) while today we throw up a much bigger building in a year or two.

You can probably find this book on the internet. If you are interested in architecture you will find it an indispensable volume that you will go back to time and time again, even if it is just for the fun of it.

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