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The Observer’s Book of British Architecture

John Penoyre and Michael Ryan. The Observer’s Book of British Architecture, written and illustrated by John Penoyre and Michael Ryan, describing and indexing the development of building in Britain from Saxon times to the present day. Foreword by F. R. S. Yorke. London: Frederick Warne & Co. LTD., 1951. The Special Collections edition was gifted by Howard Meyer, FAIA.

Architecture implies building beautifully and well. Great architecture can be profoundly moving, can stir us more deeply than any other of the visual arts, for it is a three-dimensional art into which the beholder may enter and of which he may feel himself an integral part. Architecture is not an application of beautiful detail to a building; to aspire to the name of architecture the building itself must not only be well built but must truly fulfill its purpose and at the same time delight the beholder (pg 9).

The Observer’s Book of British Architecture was designed as an easily carried reference book on British architecture from the Saxon Period to the twentieth century. According to the authors: Primarily, this is a reference book, designed specifically to give the observer the information he wants in a form easily remembered (pg 9). In order to aid the observer, Penoyre and Ryan reduced the built environment to generalized forms, color coded the architectural periods, arranged the works chronologically, and added helpful diagrams that identify architectural terms or building techniques. They also included a Visual Index: Its purpose is to group together certain features (doors, columns, etc.) in such a way that the observer, when faced with a building for identification, may note for himself its peculiar elements, compare them to the their equivalents or approximate equivalents in the Visual Index, and then refer to the text as indicated (pg 10). The last section of the book is a place for the observer to  make notes; however, Mr. Meyer did not record any.

As the series is intended  for the layman, the authors have greatly simplified the complexity of the building tradition in Britain. F. R. S. Yorke notes in his foreword: In this stimulating and extraordinarily well-balanced book Penoyre and Ryan have traced quite clearly- so clearly that I found it possible to understand the text without the diagrams- the development of English architecture from Saxon times, and have provided just enough background that the observer needs to help him follow, without confusion or bogging down in unnecessary detail, the development of building, planning, and technique through the centuries; and that should help, too, to get rid of some of the misgivings he may have about the architecture of today (pg 5). Despite the sweeping statements and the simplification, the images make the guide a handy text for those who need a quick reference while traveling around Britain while the diagrams are quite helpful for those who have not had a survey course. Moreover, the illustrations are delightful with their bold color blocking.

For more information regarding the publisher Frederick Warne, please visit Penguin Books. For the Observer’s Pocket Series, there is a Collector’s Society.