Born Alec Clifton Taylor (no hyphen), the son of Stanley Edgar Taylor, corn-merchant, and Ethel Elizabeth Taylor (née Hills), in 1907 at Whitepost House, Overton Road in Sutton, Surrey, Clifton-Taylor was educated at Bishop's Stortford College and at the Queen's College, Oxford. He went on to the Courtauld Institute of Art. During World War II he served in the Admiralty.
His best-known and most influential book is The Pattern of English Building (1962) (ISBN 0-571-14890-5), an examination of the architectural vernacular. It orders its subject according to the building materials and methods used in England. Two of his other books are studies of ecclesiastical architecture: The Cathedrals of England and English Parish Churches as Works of Art. Along with Nikolaus Pevsner (to whose Buildings of England series he was a contributor) and John Betjeman, Clifton-Taylor is considered one of the three most significant figures in the study of English churches.
Clifton-Taylor gained his greatest public recognition late in life through his work for the BBC. After being introduced through Pevsner to BBC arts producer John Drummond, Clifton-Taylor presented a television programme on mediaeval building in the series on British architecture, The Spirit of the Age, broadcast in 1974–75. Clifton-Taylor went on to present three extremely popular series of 30- or 40-minute BBC programmes: Six English Towns (1977), Six More English Towns (1981), and Another Six English Towns (1984), in which he visited Chichester, Richmond, Tewkesbury, Stamford, Totnes, Ludlow, Warwick, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Saffron Walden, Lewes, Bradford on Avon, Beverley, Cirencester, Whitby, Bury St Edmunds, Devizes, Sandwich and Durham, discussing their history and architectural character in an accessible and courteous (if uncompromising) style. Each series was accompanied by its own book, and DVDs of the three series were released in 2016/7.
Clifton-Taylor was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1982 for "services to the study of architecture".
Clifton-Taylor believed that local materials had to be used for buildings to look 'right', and was therefore critical of much Victorian and subsequent architecture, erected after the railways had facilitated the transport of cheaper materials alien to a particular locale. He also regarded the Victorians as aesthetically poor restorers.
His other books are Buildings of Delight, English Brickwork (with Ronald Brunskill) and English Stone Building.
He lived in Kensington, west London, for much of his life, and was president of the Kensington Society, an organisation devoted to preserving the borough's architecture and open spaces. The Alec Clifton-Taylor Memorial Garden is located behind St Mary Abbots Church in Kensington.