Last edited 19 Dec 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Architectural Details: a visual guide to 5,000 years of building styles

Architectural Details: a visual guide to 5,000 years of building styles, Emily Cole (general editor), Ivy Press, 2015, 352 pages, paperback.

The book’s subtitle A visual guide to 5,000 years of building styles sounds pretty comprehensive. But a reader hoping to learn about many of the styles that he or she will see in wandering around a city in the UK – arts and crafts, art deco, modernism, brutalism, high tech or postmodernism, for example – will be disappointed. The book covers almost nothing after 1850.

The reason, I suspect, is simple: the book consists mainly of engravings taken from various 18th- and 19th-century architectural treatises, and such copyright-free material is not available for more modern buildings.

The introduction states, lamely, that ‘the architectural language that followed, in the later 1800s and 1900s was, even more than that of the preceding generations, one of recurring motifs. Terminology remained for the most part traditional and set, and attention was given instead to building materials and methods of construction. One need only understand, for example, Gothic architectural terms in order to be able to codify and describe the buildings of the Gothic Revival...’.

But the book is about building styles, not just terminology. Strangely, the introduction refers to the book’s title as A Concise History of Architectural Styles (which would have been a better title), rather than Architectural Details. The small print tells us that it was first published in 2002 as Grammar of Architecture.

That confusion apart, the book has much to recommend it. The main section, on architectural styles, is followed by a shorter one on elements of architecture (domes, columns, doorways and so on) and a useful glossary. The hundreds of engravings are beautiful and informative. The brief text and captions describe the styles, buildings, details and terminology well.

The book is attractively presented, and at £14.99 it is good value. Readers who know little about architecture will find it a highly accessible introduction, and experts will enjoy browsing some unfamiliar images.

This article originally appeared as ‘The sum of the parts’ in Context 142, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2015. It was written by Rob Cowan, editor of Context and author of the Dictionary of Urbanism.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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