February 07: Lunar Gothic

2016/02/07 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1868 an awesome review of Oriel Chambers appeared in The Building News and Engineering Journal.

Most histories of iron technology ignore this nubby little office building in Liverpool, which is a shame.  As perhaps the first fully metal-framed curtain-wall building anywhere, it certainly knocks the wind out of Chicago’s sails for technological predominance in the story of tall building construction.  Then again, saying this Liverpudlian one-off is the world’s first skyscraper and a precedent for virtually all of the Modern movement might be an exaggeration (even so, it’s true Liverpool deserves more attention; see here to see why).  Peter Ellis’ building is novel to be sure, but it turned out to be avant garde in the bad way: the military way, the way of being the first into the battle and getting skewered by a bayonet.  For Ellis it was the architectural press and public opinion that did him in as his building was universally panned.  For all their good manners elsewhere, nineteenth-century folks knew how to let it fly when they didn’t like a building, and the critique of Oriel Chambers is something special.  To get the full effect of the review, please grow excellent facial hair and twirl your mustache at every sarcastic adjective (hint: that’s all of them) (and that goes for a few verbs and nouns, too).  You may also wish to imagine Bill Nighy reading the following, which is reprinted here in its entire nineteenth-century perfection:

The lover of the sublime in architecture … will be amply rewarded for previous disappointment if he turn down Water-street and contemplate the erection called Oriel-buildings, which the genius of Mr. Peter Ellis has called into existence.  This is a kind of greenhouse architecture run mad; consisting of a series of vertical bays running completely from the top to bottom of the building, divided from each other by long thin shafts, rising from the plinth without any bases, said shafts being flanked by a very large coarse “nail-head” ornament.  Between these artistically designed piers are a series of bay windows with iron frames, one above the other, projecting beyond the mainline of the wall, and suggesting the idea that they are trying to escape from the building.  The whole thing is composed of these vertical strips of design (?) placed side by side, each bay crowned with a finial looking like a big, badly cut decanter-stopper.  The style, in short, might be described as  “lunar Gothic;” and no one who has not seen it would believe, we think, that such a thing could, in the present day, be erected in cold blood by any person calling himself a member of the architectural profession.

Although Oriel Chambers will never be a lovely building, it is beloved, in its way, which is the way that a three-legged and one-eyed dog can be beloved by a family.  One wonders how it managed to survive all these years when other weird, unexpected buildings of that sublime century were bulldozed for committing the sin of bad taste (one’s mind turns to Furness).  And one wonders what other wonders may have dripped from the pen of Ellis, had he not had his feelings too hurt by the bad reviews of this building and his subsequent change of professions.

Read the full issue of The Building News and Engineering Journal (vol. 15, 7 February 1868, pages 90-91) right here

image: Oriel Chambers, Liverpool (Clio’s)

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