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In the introduction, John Julius Norwich explains the reasoning behind the organization of this beautifully produced but ultimately unsatisfying compilation of 211 of Beny's architectural photographs. The collection is grouped ""not. . .by place, period or style, but according to specific elements of construction. . .walls, doors, windows. . .columns, towers, domes."" Unfortunately, the approach doesn't work, at least not here. Norwich asserts that by viewing each element individually, viewers can ""fully understand the contribution that it makes to the ensemble."" But that's just the point: here, the viewer rarely sees the ensemble and is left, like the blind man encountering the elephant, with a trunk here, a tail somewhere else, and wondering how do these bits, interesting as they are, fit together? Technically, Beny's studies are superb, sensitively composed, fine-grained, evocatively lit. They range from Jai Singh's hauntingly surrealistic observatory in Jaipur, to the Jardin de la Fontaine in Nimes, which in Beny's rendering seems breathlessly to await the return of a band of Fragonard shepherdesses and their swains. Japanese pagoda roofs and Roman mosaic floors, English Gothic arches and Egyptian temple columns all receive the photographer's loving attention but without any indication of a larger, much-needed perspective. The text is equally fragmented-and equally frustrating. Selected quotations about architecture by Vitruvius, Scheverell Sitwell, Viollet= le-Duc, John Ruskin and others, occupy most of the space. They're interesting but peripheral to the matter at hand. Captions of the photographs, on the one hand, are lumped together at the beginning and end of each section, necessitating a constant flipping back and forth to determine just what is being shown. To make matters worse, explanatory notes are placed at the back of the volume, requiring further page-turning. While the photographs in The Romance of Architecture are striking and Norwich is to be thanked for bringing them together in such a handsome format, one wishes he had resisted the urge to attempt to make them carry an instructional message they cannot sustain. Better if they'd been allowed to stand on their own considerable aesthetic merits.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Abrams