British Bricks in England: Imperialism, Industrialisation and Victorian Architecture
The debate over what constitutes the English national architecture has never been resolved because, as in many other nations, there has never been a dominance of one particular style but rather a progression through numerous styles that reflect a multitude of influences. The English people are generally aware, however, of an architectural heritage, and certain buildings in particular have influenced how they conceive of their national identity. In a recent television programme called Why England's F****d, the contentious aristocratic figure Francis Fulton travels to various places around England in order to illustrate his views on the current state of English society. The issue of architectural heritage appears when Fulton is seen walking reverently by the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. He speaks of his admiration for the building and the political system that it made manifest. Following this, we find Fulton outside a famous group of Brutalist tower block buildings in a London suburb in order to argue the essential inferiority of this kind of structure, which he sees as 'ugly.' He then interviews someone who wants to have the Brutalist buildings listed as important contributions to English architectural heritage. Fulton argues against this on principle because in his opinion they are not only ugly, but they also do not fulfil their function properly. Fulton's opinions appear to derive from certain social attitudes and a concept of national identity that lead him to be sceptical about almost everything contemporary in England, with the result that he appreciates certain buildings above others. A pertinent question arises from this: do our perceptions of English architecture reveal our own subjective take on English identity, or is there actually such a thing as a purely English architecture that reflects a unique genius loci (spirit of place)?
Defining a specifically English architectural heritage is problematic due to the plethora of international influences that have affected our architectural practices throughout history, and also because the issue of national style first came to the fore during the nineteenth century, when England's role in global politics, as part of Britain, had radically changed. Academic discussions of style had been gathering pace ever since the industrial revolution. which, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book The Past is a Foreign Country, shocked many English people, not only because of the squalid conditions in the industrial towns, but also the perceived destruction of the countryside, viewed by many as an intrinsic part of the English heritage. Lowenthal connects the abhorrence of industrial progress of some Victorian thinkers, most prominently John Ruskin, to their historicism and Classicism. Ruskin vented his disgust at the destruction of the countryside relatively late in his life, but as with much of his thought, it can be argued that it took root much earlier. It manifested itself throughout his life in a revivalist attitude which saw modern society as deeply flawed and without redeeming virtue, a view that was undoubtedly a corollary of his strict Evangelical upbringing. Ruskin's England needed saving from itself, and from the effects of industrial and imperial progress. Like the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris, with whom Ruskin was closely connected, he believed that only by imbibing and imitating the values and artistic practices of previous eras, specifically Medieval England, could England become a progressive society.
In the television programme, Francis Fulton did recognise the importance of the modern Houses of Parliament as a symbol of national pride. The Houses were designed by Charles Barry and Auguste Pugin, who entered the competition to design some new parliamentary buildings to replace the Palace of Westminster, destroyed by a fire in 1834. The competition regulators specified that designs should be in either the Gothic or Elizabethan styles, the only forms deemed appropriate for a structure of such monumental national importance. The finished building is often referred to as a masterpiece of Neo-Gothic architecture, with its detail modelled on Pugin's intricate drawings. Although Pugin was the foremost advocate of the Gothic revival, he did not agree that the Houses' design should be labelled as Gothic, since, unlike most Gothic buildings, the exterior was not planned with the design of the interior in mind. The fact that the Houses came to represent a benchmark of Neo-Gothic (and English) architecture is odd, therefore, suggesting that the style was chosen to forge a connection with England's past, rather than for purely utilitarian reasons.
The Neo-Gothic style, arguably the closest that architects got to a specifically English style during the Victorian age, had links with a long history of Christian architecture. The first Gothic buildings were built in France and the style made its appearance in England during the twelfth century, in facets of the Durham and Canterbury cathedrals. A uniquely English version of Gothic then developed with the Wells and Lincoln cathedrals, which were built from the late twelfth to the mid-thirteenth centuries. I grew up in a village very close to Wells and I remember, on a visit to the cathedral when I was about 7 or 8, being told that it took 'three lifetimes' to build. This fact stuck in my mind above everything else that I had heard about the cathedral. It shows the importance that contemporaries attached to the building and its design; craftsmen and architects were content to contribute to its construction in the knowledge that they might not live to see it finished, a virtue that Ruskin identified as typical of mediaeval artistic practice. This humility and sacrifice, embodied in the cathedral, gave the building weight as an intrinsic part of the local landscape. When I was growing up, buildings like Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey forged a special link for me between past and present, and I would not have called them anything but English.
A less well-known genre of Victorian and Edwardian architecture is the work done by British architects in the different colonies and dominions of the Empire. Recently art historians have been looking at this area, usually with reference to India and, to a lesser extent, South Africa. It is undeniable that stylistic trends in Britain were exported to other parts of the Empire, such as America and Canada. However, in South Africa and India there was a greater emphasis on asserting a definite British presence, perhaps as a defensive mechanism to counter uprising and dissent.
In India the problem of the choice of style for British buildings took on a greater importance after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. The debate hinged on whether or not indigenous forms should be integrated within British designs, as a public display of cultural appropriation that would suggest a connection to previous empires in the Indian subcontinent. Most popular was the Islamic or Saracenic style derived from the buildings of the Mughal Empire, which had dominated most of India before the British gradually established their influence there. Some senior British officials believed that the use of this style would suggest that the British Empire had inherited the hegemonic mantle of the Mughal Empire. Other officials disagreed, believing that 'native' forms would corrupt British architectural design. This was particularly true of church architecture in India: any deviation from the approved Neo-Gothic style was viewed as a corruption of Christianity itself. Further examples of hostility to indigenous architecture can be found in Delhi, where there was a distinct lack of the popular Indo-Saracenic style. Thomas Metcalf argues that this was due to Delhi's role as the pre-eminent trading centre with the west after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, so that local British traders and philanthropists tended to reject stereotypically 'Indian' styles in favour of British ones.
South Africa gave him subsequent opportunities to design buildings in India, and numerous Imperial buildings in London such as India House and South Africa House. The Classical style of his London buildings is unremarkable and was probably intended to be as un-iconic and neutral as possible. The designs are not uniquely English, unlike that of the Houses of Parliament, nor do they make use of any of the indigenous styles that he had encountered in the colonies. Baker was a great believer in the 'civilising' goal of the Empire, so that the London buildings could have represented for him the embodiment of Classical rational, harmonious ideals.
The diversity of English architecture throughout history reflects the fact that England is not a static or isolated nation. Even amongst architects, perceptions of national style vary. During the Victorian era, however, the debate surrounding it became more heated due to the many changes that were taking place: not only rapid industrialisation but a population explosion, and the rise to global predominance of the British Empire. The increasingly international role of England, as a part of Britain, during this period was often perceived as a threat to traditional English ways of life, and the revivalist attitudes of many Victorian architects were, arguably, linked to this. Thus as England's role changed, it became important to develop a national style that reflected both the values that were being lost to industrialisation, and those which, with Imperial expansion, the British were trying to export around the world. --Alexander Flux
We are very pleased to welcome Alexander Flux to the Albion team. Alexander is from Somerset and brings to the magazine a background in art history. His reviews of Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty and Nick Love's film The Business appear elsewhere in this edition.--The Editor