‘Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture’ ed. Murray Fraser Bloomsbury, 2512pp, £350
Murray Fraser’s ‘Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture’ is a staggering undertaking, both in its attempt to encompass so much, and in its scholarly execution.
The first edition of ‘Banister Fletcher’ was published in 1896, collaboratively written by Sir Banister Fletcher and his father (also Banister Fletcher) – under the full title ‘A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method’. Another four editions were published under their joint name, until the sixth edition in 1921 – twenty-two years after the death of Fletcher senior, and largely rewritten – which was credited only to Sir Banister Fletcher, despite the contributions of his first wife, Alice Bretherton.
The sixteenth edition was completed just before Fletcher’s death in 1953, and three more updated editions were then published before Dan Cruickshank’s twentieth edition in 1996, which expanded and revised the existing chapters and added new ones, predominantly on non-Western architecture. While Cruickshank worked with four consultant editors and 14 new contributors, this latest version acknowledges the contributions of a large number of writers, editors and others, including Tom Dyckhoff who commenced as general editor of the project but subsequently handed it over to Murray Fraser.
The 2019 edition is explicitly put forward as a ‘collective effort’ in the manner of the natural sciences, but it also recognises that in the humanities it is problematic to purport to reveal a single truth, or to do so in a single voice, instead identifying the individual authors responsible for each chapter. These two impulses are somewhat contradictory, however, particularly as many of the authors ostensibly write their chapter as if they are recording indisputable facts – often by limiting themselves to material on which there is broad agreement.
Spread from the 21st edition of ‘Banister Fletcher’. The two-volume compendium contains over 2,200 photographs and drawings.
I recently taught a history survey lecture course on architecture since 1945 and offered some comparative analysis of the coverage of the same time period in Kenneth Frampton’s ‘Modern Architecture’, William Curtis’ ‘Modern Architecture Since 1900’, and Jean-Louis Cohen’s ‘The Future of Architecture Since 1889’ – on the premise that students in a creative field need to be aware of what is fact, what is generally agreed, and where opinions diverge – followed by a number of other very particular viewpoints, including my own doctoral research on Adolf Loos, to demonstrate the possibility that what is generally agreed may in fact be incorrect, or at least lacking nuance. The structure of this edition of Banister Fletcher largely sidesteps these issues of historiography, but in the future it will no doubt provide a fascinating record of the widely-held views of the early twenty-first century, just as art historians can date a painting not by the subject it depicts, but by the way it depicts that subject.
The last enormous and expensive survey book that I personally purchased was Phaidon’s ‘Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture’, and while I have occasionally referred to it over the years, I can now generally find similar information more quickly online. The same may well be true of this latest edition of Banister Fletcher for readers who already know what they are looking for. And for those who don’t, it may be a rather daunting introduction. Those issues aside, reading it is no doubt less challenging than trying to piece together a coherent timeline of all architecture – as many students have – by reading, for example, Spiro Kostof’s ‘A History of Architecture’ and Frampton’s ‘Modern Architecture, A Critical History’, and tacking on bits and pieces from numerous other sources.
In the age of the internet, the format of this book – a survey of the entire, vast subject of architecture in two volumes – seems somewhat nostalgic, reminiscent of publications such as the Encyclopedia Britannica. It will certainly serve as a great introduction to particular architectural subjects for the interested but uninitiated, such as undergraduate architecture students, but in attempting to cover everything, it of course treats most subjects fairly lightly. This latest edition of ‘Banister Fletcher’ is nonetheless a hugely impressive enterprise, and an invaluable resource.