Celebrating the launch of the all-new 21st edition of this classic architectural history – commissioned by the RIBA and the University of London and published by Bloomsbury – RIBApix showcases images from the collections reflecting the global scope of the new edition.
A former President of the RIBA (1929-31), Sir Banister Fletcher is primarily remembered not for his buildings, nor his lectureship at the University of London, but for his magnum opus, 'A History of Architecture'. One of the earliest survey texts, 'Sir Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture' became essential reading for generations of architects and students soon after it was first published in 1896. Yet through its 20 editions it never shook off the historic western bias stemming from its Victorian roots, a bias graphically expressed in Fletcher’s ‘Tree of Architecture’, which treated non-Western architectural traditions as having no influence on the course of history.
The 21st edition represents the felling of this tree: a root and branch revision of the book’s structure and content, in a conscious effort to transform what was once a western-centric, potted world history into a truly globalised history of architecture. The result of a 5-year project led by the RIBA, the new edition draws together the distinctive voices of 88 international experts from the fields of architecture, archaeology and architectural and cultural history, providing a platform for different perspectives and an interdisciplinary approach. Images for the new edition were chosen with the same principle of diversity in mind, with the aim to demonstrate the variety of ways in which architecture is designed, represented and communicated through visual media.
While the 21st edition seeks finally and fundamentally to break with the imperialist world-view permeating its predecessors, there are many aspects of Sir Banister Fletcher’s thinking about architecture that remain relevant today. Insisting on the place of architecture in a rounded education, he articulated its importance in simple but striking terms, as “the art which gives us ‘home’”, and as the context for everyday life: “It is our daily companion [and] walks hand in hand with us in most of our activities.” He believed that with a general knowledge of architectural history and principles, “each street is a picture gallery which everyone may enter” free of charge:
“Our free gallery of buildings varies with the day and time of the year; we may see them in the haze of the early dawn, in the full flood of the noonday sun, in the dimness of the twilight, or in the weirdness of the moonlight, while in the changes of the seasons we get that variety which gives them life.”
He was also keen to emphasise that, as in past ages, “architecture still continues to reflect the thought of the day, the needs and aspirations of the people, and is an index of the social forces at work.” This observation is perhaps as true today as when it was written. Fundamentally, Sir Banister Fletcher understood that without a sound knowledge of architecture and an understanding of its impact on our daily lives, there would be no public desire for well-designed buildings.
The importance of good design underpins the other major preoccupation of Sir Banister Fletcher’s career: the relationship between architecture and public health. Railing against damp, dirt and dark corners, he extolled the virtues of sunlight, fresh air and rational planning, arguing in 1899:
“How can we expect the gutter children of London to grow up as good citizens, as honest, sober, and manly, when they pass their lives in the filthy atmosphere of a London slum, with a square of dirty pavement for a playing space and a gin palace for a background.”
This moralising quote, taken from Sir Banister Fletcher’s speculative treatise of 1899, 'Architecture of the Twentieth Century from the Point of View of Public Health', reflects contemporary discussions around overcrowded tenements and the arguments for slum clearance, and looks ahead to later Modernist efforts to provide healthy, well planned housing for ordinary city-dwellers. With a career spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of the key design debates of the day can be traced like this within Sir Banister Fletcher’s work. A foretaste of Adolf Loos manifesto on 'Ornament and Crime' (1910) is apparent in the Fletcher’s denouncement of late nineteenth-century architecture as “a grotesque medley of styles.” His RIBA-prize-winning essay written in 1896 condemns the “ostentatious gimcrackery” of late Victorian furniture design – he would later become Master of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters – and laments likewise that “construction has become the art of successful deception.”
Sir Banister Fletcher’s ideas on the fitness of architecture to human needs, the influence of materials on architectural styles, and finding a contemporary style appropriate to the ‘spirit of the age’, would also seem to be reminiscent of the preoccupations of Modernism. Echoing Loos once more, as well as Louis Sullivan – who in 1896 had coined the phrase ‘form follows function’ – Sir Banister Fletcher argued that “in architecture, materials must indicate their functions by the form we give them, and these should conform to their nature.” A well-designed building should thus express its “means of construction” and while, in Fletcher’s view, nineteenth-century architecture had been “incessantly hastening to its decay”, it was in the great Victorian feats of engineering, in structures of iron and steel, that the “scientific and material progress of our age” was more fully articulated. He argued that architects, not just engineers, should use the technological advances and new materials available to them, asserting that “it can hardly be doubted that if the Romans had had at their command cast- and wrought-iron girders of large dimensions, they would have used them”.
Yet although Sir Banister Fletcher’s ideas were formed in the same earth as the groundwork of Modernism, the concrete manifestations of such thinking clearly did not appeal to his aesthetic sensibilities. In the sixteenth edition of the 'History of Architecture', produced just before his death in 1953, and published the following year, the leading Modernist architects were given short shrift: “Space does not permit reference to many architects, including Le Corbusier, Frank [he means Walter!] Gropius and Eric [correctly Erich] Mendelsohn.” It is these kinds of omissions and historical biases that the successive editors of the 'History of Architecture' grappled with in the years after Banister Fletcher’s bequest of the copyright in his book to the RIBA and the University of London.
A 21st edition for the 21st century, the new edition goes further than ever to address the limitations of its predecessors and brings a thoroughly contemporary understanding to over 5,500 years of architecture across the globe.
The gallery below displays images from the RIBA Collections used in the new edition, alongside some examples of the distinctive line drawings made in his architectural office that Banister Fletcher used both to illustrate earlier editions and as lecture diagrams.
Article by: Catherine Gregg