The 2,000 years between the classical architecture of Rome and the world of modernism are scattered with a vast range of building styles. Many of these are derived from classicism and other traditional forms, but soon evolved into completely different styles, the origin of which can be difficult to discern.
This style of architecture, popular between AD 1050 and 1200, was also influenced by the Byzantine Empire, established at Byzantium (later known as Constantinople or Istanbul) in AD 330, whose effect lasted well into the 15th century.
Buildings of this kind incorporated the original Roman semi-circular arch and the barrel vault, with a groyne vault created at the rectangular intersection of two barrel vaults. Structurally, such vaults were difficult, requiring thick outer walls to resist the outward pressure of the vault, often in addition to substantial load-bearing columns inside the building.
The Normans brought the style to Britain with their conquest of 1066, replacing and supplementing the existing Saxon churches, most of which used a very crude form of construction. One of the most impressive examples of early Norman work is the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, within the Tower of London, which incorporates ‘massive round-arched arcades on sturdy circular piers with crudely scalloped capitals’, together with an ambulatory, apse and tribune gallery. The effect is almost Eastern and certainly alien to London. Yet despite the heavy tunnel vault form of construction, there is an amazing amount of light, with the simplicity of the structure conveying a subliminal message about the mystery of God.
Some of the problems with the barrel vault were eventually overcome by incorporating ribs in the vault itself, so lessening the pressure on the outer walls. This technique, first used at Durham cathedral in 1104, was soon common throughout northern Europe. Despite this, huge columns were still necessary within the structure, although those at Durham are decorated in a manner that only enhances the character of the building.
Although superseded by the later Gothic style, Romanesque was sometimes used in the 19th and 20th century. The greatest example is Westminster Cathedral (not to be confused with the Abbey), which was completed by Francis Bentley in 1903, strikingly built of ‘striped’ brick and stone in a mix of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, with an arched entrance and an impressive tower containing a lift. Inside, each of the nave’s three bays is covered by a concrete dome, whilst the Lady Chapel contains gold mosaic work.
The round arch was superseded by the pointed arch, a characteristic of Gothic architecture. This form was first used in 722 BC in the construction of drains in Iran and allowed two ribs of different spans to have the same height. Such arches also occur naturally when half-circle arches are built at an angle to the axis of a building, the arches at the intersection appearing to be pointed when viewed along the axis. In fact, pointed arches are essential in order to construct a vault over a rectangular space: the use of ‘stilts’ to equalise the height of the arches only serves to give them a peculiar appearance.
The Gothic style originated in France and was used in church architecture for almost a thousand years, developing features that were naturalistic, mystical and individual. Unlike classical buildings, where the structure is defined by the required external appearance, the outside elevation and plan is determined by the internal arrangements. Hence the positioning of windows may appear chaotic, but is actually based on a rational layout within the building. In this respect, Gothic follows the modernist maxim of ‘form follows function’.
The earliest period of Gothic, known as Early English, was established by the year 1200, with churches that featured pointed arches, lancet windows and undercut mouldings. These buildings often incorporated flying buttresses, a sequence of structures around the perimeter of the church that counteracted the outward pressure of the vault and which were topped by pinnacles acting as counterweights.
The effect of the flying buttress was revolutionary, since the structural significance of the walls was less significant, allowing the introduction of more windows of a greater size. By 1290, the Decorated period had reached its maturity, with more outlines, larger clerestorey windows, tracery and ogee curves. And by 1330, with the arrival of the Perpendicular style, buttressing technology had developed to the extent that it was possible to almost dispense with walls entirely, providing vast windows between the piers and uninterrupted surfaces from floor to ceiling.
The Perpendicular style reached its apogee in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, which was started in 1446 and completed in a final stage of construction from 1508. Featuring 24 huge and brilliantly stained windows, as created in the reign of King Henry VIII, the building rises to 94 feet, with three-quarters of that height occupied almost entirely by glass. The vertical shafts are smoothly joined to the roof ribs, the latter crossing the huge yet delicate fans that decorate the roof.
The dying days of the Perpendicular period were confused by classical influences arriving from the continent, as demonstrated at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel (1623), where both Tuscan and Gothic elements sit side by side. The Gothic style was almost finished off by the Great Fire of London, which destroyed most of the City’s churches, including St Paul’s cathedral. Following on from the revolutionary classical forms pioneered by Inigo Jones, it was left to Sir Christopher Wren to create replacements in the new style.
Up until the middle of the 18th century, the Gothic style was rarely used for anything other than ecclesiastical buildings. With the arrival of the ‘picturesque’ movement, however, ‘Gothick’ appeared in domestic buildings. This introduced ‘intricacy and variety’ to architecture and was ‘in the manner of painters’, which was anti-urban, individual and natural.
Its pioneer, Horace Walpole, built a ‘little Gothic castle’ for himself at Strawberry Hill (1776). Although containing sombre elements of church design, such as a fireplace based on a tomb and a Gallery containing mock vaulting similar to that of Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, this style can’t be taken too seriously and has been described as ‘gay Gothic’.
The greatest creator of the picturesque was John Nash, who constructed Blaise Hamlet (1811) near Bristol for retired workers, consisting of nine cottages placed irregularly around a village green, complete with village pump. Every building was different, with roofs of thatch, stone or pantiles. The style isn’t really Gothic: in fact, it doesn’t match the definition of any known style. Nash also used mixed forms at his Brighton’s Royal Pavillion (1815), with Indian styling on the outside and Chinese decoration within. Nash was in good company, however, for the classical architect Sir William Chambers created his Chinese pagoda at Kew Gardens way back in 1781, incorporating ten storeys and reaching a height of 163 feet.
Nash continued using the picturesque for the development of Regent’s Park (1828), but using his stucco form of classicism. Before the scheme collapsed, he, along with Decimus Burton, managed to create numerous buildings around the park. The plan, if completed, would have turned Park Crescent into a ‘circus’, whilst the Inner Circle would have contained villas ‘scattered among the trees.’
The 19th century saw Gothic emerge as the ‘Christian style’. This idea was promoted by Augustus Welby Pugin, an Anglo-Catholic who published two influential books: Contrasts (1836) and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841). Another powerful voice was that of John Ruskin, who in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3) expounded the ideas of ‘truth to nature’. Unlike modern architects he wasn’t divorced from the world of art, giving support to the Pre-Raphaelites and indicating that ‘art reflects the morality of society.’ It’s worth considering modern art in the context of the latter statement!
Pugin thought painted iron a deception, saying that if exposed it had to be of a thinness consistent with its strength. He didn’t think it sufficient to apply Gothic features to a rigid classical framework, but this is precisely what happened when he worked with Charles Barry on the Houses of Parliament (1836-60). Despite this, the building was entirely successful, the very rich decoration of the House of Lords described as ‘Pugin’s London masterpiece.’
The other great example of non-ecclesiastical Gothic is Sir George Gilbert Scott’s St Pancras Hotel (1868-76), which stands in front of the vast shed of St Pancras station (1868), as created by W H Barlow and R M Ordish. Scott used a ‘masterly synthesis of Gothic motifs’ in a ‘craggy, wilfully picturesque composition’, employing the highest quality of materials and detailing. As demanded by Ruskin, he saved the spikiest elements, complete with two towers, for the top of the building, so creating a wonderful skyline. Although relegated to railway offices for many years, this structure is to receive a new lease of life with completion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL).
All three forms of Gothic were for used for churches during the 19th century revival, although Early English was particularly favoured, often accompanied by colourful decoration on every surface. One of the greatest exponents of this art was William Butterfield, whose finest example is the Anglo-Catholic church of All Saints, Margaret Street, London. Here, despite a cramped site and uninspiring entrance, the interior is filled with ‘remorseless decoration and dazzling colour.’
Apart from church buildings, Gothic was considered unfashionable at the end of the century. The Edwardian period (1901-10) belonged to the flowering of the Arts and Crafts movement and a further classical revival, typified by Free Style architects such as Richard Norman Shaw, Edwin Lutyens and Aston Webb.
This style, loosely based on classical forms, originated in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). During this period an increasing amount of wealth was derived from the New World, which was then spent on houses.
A typical Queen Anne house was symmetrical, had two principal storeys, a hipped roof and an attic storey with dormer windows. There was usually a wooden eaves cornice, although a brick parapet was employed in London to minimise the risk of fire. Quoins or angles were highlighted by stone or different coloured brick, whilst entrance porches were ornate, with decorated corbels and pilasters on each side of the door.
As in late 17th century buildings, sash windows were normally fitted. However, early versions had a fixed top panel and lacked any weights, instead having notches in grooves, which accepted pegs to hold the window at the required height. Iron casements were sometimes used in rear, side or dormer windows.
This conservative style was much admired by the Edwardians, largely as a result of its revival in the latter part of the 19th century. The finest example of the latter period is Swan House (1876), constructed by Richard Norman Shaw on the Chelsea Embankment, London. The first floor has three caged and fully-glazed oriel windows, above which there is a projecting third floor with three narrow oriel windows that alternate with flat, narrow Queen Anne windows. The fourth floor tops this with smaller matching windows, above which are three dormers. This ‘original, light and graceful’ building is an immaculate design, only made possible by the way in which the elements are carefully proportioned, positioned and aligned.
The term ‘sublime’ refers to ‘inspiring awe and wonder’, rather than a specific architectural style. Structures that have this effect are usually very large, often have little or no decoration and are sometimes in a classical or Egyptian style, whilst the scale of construction is frequently emphasised by deep incisions that portray the use of huge blocks.
Sublime works were often created intentionally to exert power over others, as in the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Of these, only the Pyramids remain, but even these continue to express the authority of the Pharaohs. In the early 19th century, landscape painting and architecture explored the sublime, as embodied in the awesome and even horrific aspects of nature. This seems to have led to the renewed use of architecture as a social tool, for in 1821 Jeremy Bentham created his model penitentiary in London, on what is now the site of the Tate gallery. This vast structure, in octagonal form, occupied an area of 18 acres and was designed to provide a terrifying aspect to those both within and outside the prison. Pentonville prison (1842) has a similar effect, with its huge portico and inclined wall in a severe classical style. This was built by Major Jebb in the form of Bentham’s Panopticon design, consisting of five wings radiating from a central block.
Numerous other buildings, including lunatic asylums and workhouses, many of which were later converted in hospitals, were built in a similar severe manner. Whether these structures had any influence on behaviour is difficult to determine: the author will leave this for the reader to decide.
The use of the sublime in church architecture can be highly effective, as demonstrated in Brighton’s St Bartholemew’s Church, completed by Edmund Scott in 1874. This is described as ‘one of the supreme Victorian churches of England.’ Externally, it resembles a massive plain brick barn, ‘awesome … with its brick walls towering above the surrounding houses’ and with little decoration apart from a huge rose window at the south end. The message is quite clear: God is bigger than you. Internally, the effect is even more dramatic; the dark and austere brick walls with their pointed-arch recesses rising to 135 feet, higher than Westminster Abbey. This is minimalist Gothic, in which the gilded Byzantine altarpiece seems almost lost, representing a God who has the power and the right to create, crush and restore every human soul.
The sublime rarely appears in 20th-century architecture, since modernism precludes the use of a style to identify a building’s function, although an echo of it appears in the heavier concrete forms of brutalism. Portsmouth’s unsuccessful Tricorn shopping centre, was built this way in rough-cast concrete, at times looking like a down-at-heel Arab market, illustrating that good design also demands the use of good materials.
The north of England is scattered with ‘black Satanic mills’, a result of technical progress from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and into the 19th century. Many of these buildings are of massive proportions, dwarfing most older structures. Yet, despite their almost purely functional purpose, they have a grandeur, often enhanced by minimal decorative details, something that’s sadly lacking in contemporary buildings.
Other structures outside the realm of architecture can also be sublime, such as canal and railway cuttings, bridges and tunnels. The deep cutting for the Chester Canal around the city of Chester is one example. Another is the Balcombe railway viaduct, with its 37 pierced brick and stone arches, stone balustrade and classical end pavilions, as engineered by J U Rastrick, enabling the London to Brighton railway to cross the River Ouse. And in Brighton itself, the branch line to Lewes crosses the valley of the London Road via an impressive curved viaduct that flies way above the roofs of the houses.
The Victorian approach to design was far less inhibited than today. At Todmorden in West Yorkshire, a skew bridge was required to take the railway across the Rochdale Canal. In this sensitive moorland setting, a modern engineer might install a simple concrete ‘slab’ structure. The Victorians, however, who were proud of their railways, used an iron bow-string bridge and then placed polygonal castellated and corbelled stone towers at each end. The result, including the huge retaining wall of black engineering brick that reaches down to the water on the west side, is most impressive.
The 20th created little in the way of sublime industrial structures, although it produced much ugliness. One notable exception is Battersea Power Station (1929-55) by Giles Gilbert Scott, which is a notably huge but classically proportioned landmark. Now disused, this massive brick building awaits its transformation into a modern complex. His Bankside Power Station, also completed in 1955, is far more ‘municipal’ in style and is now the home of the Tate Modern gallery.
©Ray White 2004.