June 16: THE Battle of the Styles

2012/06/16 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1835 the Royal Commission announced that the new Parliament must be in Gothic or Elizabethan style.

The old Parliament had burned in a gigantic fire on 16 October 1834 (memorialized in that marvelous painting by Turner).  The competition mounted to replace the building was full of all the political shenanigans and professional back-stabbing you’d expect in that kind of thing, but it was also the spark for the final knock-about between the Classicists and the Goths (in England, at least).  Since Gothic architecture came bursting back into practice with the construction of wild fantasies like Strawberry Hill and Fonthill Abbey in the previous century, supporters of each idiom had taken swipes at one another.  The Classicists would say that Gothic is ugly and irrelevant, the Goths would pronounce Classicism heathen and inappropriate.  This banter, known formally (in the press and everything) as “The Battle of the Styles,” expanded debate that normally occurs among aesthetes and architects into public discourse–and it’s significant when something happens that gets regular people talking about architecture.  With the  scholarly backing of antiquarians and some really smart architects, the Commission made the call that a medieval style–true “Gothic” or the more squiffy “Elizabethan” (which could be pretty much anything that the last Walter Scott novel inspired)–the true and proper style.

The submission selected was a necessarily huge Perpendicular design, which in its planing and in something of its balance reveals its architect’s preference for Classicism.  This is the polyglot Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), who could do anything (consider two early works: the Royal Manchester Institute of 1824 and All Saints, Whitefield of 1821).  His proposal for Parliament was enriched by the talents of a brilliant but flighty young designer, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52), who would, in a few years time, make a name for himself with his first amazing book and some truly wonderful buildings.

Barry’s Parliament was the decisive monument of British mediaevalism in the dusk before the dawn of the Victorian era.  It sounded the death knell of Georgian architecture, and also set a precedent for medieval parliament buildings that would be followed elsewhere, including Budapest and Vienna.  You ought to know more about it, and can do so right now by taking a great online tour by clicking here (the Muse is normally not transfixed by such walk-throughs, but this one is pretty great–you can go into the clock tower!), and by reading Rosemary Hill’s spectacular book on Pugin.  (You ought to read it if you like Pugin, or nineteenth century architecture, or architecture, or biographies, or if you can read.)

image: Victoria Tower, the Palace of Westminster (Clio’s)

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