World architectural atlas is an education to armchair travelers

The World Atlas of Architecture, with foreword by John Julius Norwich. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co. 408 pp. $75. Since the 16th century, Europeans have been making great atlases -- and from the first this meant not just maps of cities and regions, but pictures of the buildings as cityscapes, and often of the people in distinct native costume as well.

This translation of the 1981 French atlas, ``Le Grande Atlas de l'Architecture Mondiale,'' however, grew out of the ``Great Architecture of the World,'' by John Julius Norwich, who has become the Sir Kenneth Clark of architecture by making it accessible through TV documentaries.

Although the French atlas rightly amplified his volume to include non-Western architecture, it basically remains a European work -- by French scholars on European architecture -- with America delightfully seen from across the Atlantic. And it does not include the vistas of cities as a whole or folk in costume but rather focuses on individual ``great'' works, after the format of Norwich's text.

The editors' purpose is to educate the general reader, first by showing him how to look at architecture and then by introducing the great buildings. The reason? To make up for the ``virtual absence of architectural history and aesthetics from the curricula of our schools and colleges.''

The introduction takes the reader through the analysis of the forms, always a strength of the French rational mind, and finally urges him to always engage in this ``intellectual exercise'' to get beyond old prejudices ``to appreciate the objectives peculiar to each style.''

This explains why such prominence has been given to large, cutaway drawings that dominate text, maps, and the editor's judicious balance of black-and-white and color images. These cutaways reveal the most information about a building. They combine the overall silhouette of the building and its massing with the composition of the exterior and interior walls (the elevations), the arrangement of the parts (the plan), and that aspect of architecture which has been more written about in the 20th century than at any other time in history: the sense of space generated by the forms.

The arrangement of the chapters is simple. After the first quarter of the book, which treats the non-European civilizations separately by geographic unit, from China to the islands of the Pacific, the Western European monuments (including Islamic) are presented chronologically. Each topic is given a two-page opening spread consisting of photos, floor plans, and a large cutaway drawing. This is followed by an essay of about 3,000 words.

It would be useful in a second printing to correct the scattered factual errors (for example, Palazzo Pitti and the Church of Santo Spirito transposed on Fanelli's 1973 map of 15th-century Florence, and the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo credited to Michelozzo instead of Michelangelo) and to give credit to the individual writer of each essay.

In any case, this new atlas serves the function of the old -- to educate the traveler and the armchair travelers (the old atlases were undoubtedly used as reference books, too) -- so that the architectural world in all its variety becomes somewhat more intelligible.

Margaret Muther D'Evelyn is a free-lance architectural historian.

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