March 01: God’s own architect

2012/03/01 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1812 Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was born.

Plenty of architects have thought (or think, or act as if) they are God’s gift to the world.  Pugin may have been the first, and he may have been right.  His impact on architecture and design has been long-lasting, extensive, and in part, unexpectedly regrettable when one considers the trajectory of his intentions as they have been adopted and manipulated by later writers.

Perhaps more important than his actual birth date is the anniversary of his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1835.  Immediately thereafter he began an onslaught against architectural practice, lobbing three giant theory-bombs at his contemporaries: Contrasts: or, A Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day; Shewing the Present Decay of Taste (1836), True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), and finally An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843).  Through distinct and differing arguments, each advocated for a return to building with Gothic principles that Pugin connected with a broader Catholic mission to renew the social fabric that had been torn by the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.  He argued for Gothic architecture to become the model for modern architecture for what could be expressed as its rationality and expressive materiality (True Principles) and avoidance of unmeaning, willful styles that were mere costumes that detracted from the building tectonics (Apology).  Pugin did not use words like “materiality” and “tectonics,” but the fact that a twenty-first century writer can, reveals the extent to which his followers (beginning with Ruskin perhaps) have embraced a significant portion of Pugin’s ideals, even if they were then misused.  Most of them have veered from his adamant desire for a specific Gothic model—not an abstraction or a vernacular, he wanted the real thing—and importantly, dropped the religious angle.  Pugin himself had done so, only in the first book (Contrasts) being so clear about his belief that it was in Gothic alone that one finds “the faith of Christianity embodied, and its practices illustrated.”  But that only means he discovered a shrewder means to his intended ends; the ends themselves did not change.

Problem is, it is so shrewd that one can ignore his ultimate goal—real Gothic architecture, symbolic of Christianity—altogether.  Pugin can be excerpted to the extent that he sounds like a proto-Corbusier supra-early Modernist.  Just looking at his buildings shows the absurdity of this argument, but it has not, and will not, keep later writers and architects from taking his words out of context to support the design of buildings that would appall Pugin.  His words have been turned against him, as has his theory overall, to the extent that the morality he found in Gothic architecture because it was expressive of Christianity has now become a characteristic of built form even in the absence of human agency.  Pugin never wrote the phrase “human agency” because he took for granted that buildings are made by people, and it is the people and their beliefs that are reflected in buildings, although this fact is ignored by those who believe it is possible to judge a buildng’s virtue or honesty.

Just as he wrote in the Apology of wrong-minded Neo-Classicists, “Vitruvius would spew if he beheld the works of those who glory in calling him master,” one images that he would judge buildings based on his stripped-down-misunderstood-un-contextualized principles to be rather spew-inducing as well.

image: “They are weighed in the balance and found wanting:” illustration from Contrasts

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