Architectural styles and communities (Part 1)

I’ve been doing some background research for a possible project I’d like to do. It’s about the impact of a specific architectural style on the local communities where it developed and whether we can apply any modern day lessons from this. This first of a series of blogs will reveal more as my thinking develops.

The idea was sparked from my long-term interest in the architectural style, as well as watching a programme last week about building a community centre for those impacted by the shocking Grenfell Tower disaster which happened last year in London.

The initial investigation into the tower block fire has raised a number of issues and recommendations for Government action. However the TV programme highlighted the fact that this was about a local community coming to grips with the design and planning of structures built within it. This is what I want to explore more in my project.

Since I’m a historian by background and have spent time developing a website about an historical figure in civil engineering, it makes sense that I try and apply some of this to the real world. Also, the architectural style I’m interested is called ‘Secessionist’ and was developed during the life of Sir John Wolfe Barry. He never applied it himself as far as I can ascertain, but then it was considered the work of a new generation of younger architects.

However there is a connection.

John’s father Sir Charles Barry had worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the gothic revival details of the New Palace of Westminster. Pugin was a remarkable man who believed in authenticity rather than imitation, hence was somewhat conflicted by working with a classic architect who had made his name through Italianate style buildings such as the Reform and Travellers Clubs in London.

Pugin had developed his thinking on the value of medieval architecture by studying it intensively as part of sustaining his catholic religious and cultural beliefs. This in turn was to impact on Ruskin, Morris and Webb (the architect of the three) as leaders of what became the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Movement in Victorian England. For them it was a return to ancient practices which reflected the real needs of communities.

The break from tradition was encapsulated in the 1860 Red House in Bexleyheath where William Morris and family lived and is now under the protection of English Heritage.

The second post in this series.

Augustus Pugin’s gothic talent

I’m reading a detailed biography of Augustus Pugin by Rosemary Hill.

For those who don’t recognise the name, Pugin was the architect who co-designed and furnished much of the elegant gothic interior of the Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century. He also contributed to the design of many of the unique exterior features including Big Ben. There was much controversy at the time about whether he or Sir Charles Barry was chiefly responsible for the gothic revival look of the new Houses of Parliament. Certainly Sir Charles was the man in charge of the build and the layout was very much based on his classic design principles.

The biography refers in snippets to this creative relationship between the two men. Inevitably, I feel, there is a bias towards Pugin’s contribution in the book. Clearly Augustus was a remarkably talented individual with great ability, acquired from his French father, to draw intricate detail based on sketches of historic structures and artefacts. He could also work with the highly specialist artisans who created the end products required. However, he was also volatile and wouldn’t necessarily listen to reason. He needed to be inspired by muses, who were often young women with the right spiritual and physical attributes for him. The ones he married had to handle his peculiar lifestyle.

Caroline Shenton, Barry’s biographer, tells me that he’d spent years defending his designs  for the Palace to politicians and fighting off criticism and so probably felt to reveal Pugin’s involvement would set it all going again. She also thinks that over time Pugin had turned from an equal collaborator at the start to ‘just another supplier’ under the intense pressure to get the job completed. Both of them appeared to be perfectionists, so one can imagine the pressure they put on themselves and the impact of this on their health and families.

I’ll keep reading to the end of Pugin’s life as it fascinates me both for the positive and not so positive about his character. Extreme talent is a rare and precious thing – I watched lately a fascinating documentary about Magnus Carlsen the chess prodigy. He reasoned that no-one could understand what goes on in his head, so it was best to just leave him to it.  Perhaps this is a luxury some of us are allowed to enjoy in life?

Engineering versus Architecture concluded

This is my final post on the topic of engineering versus architecture on this website. Previous ones are here and here, respectively. It’s a theme I’m very interested in so will probably explore elsewhere.

I’ve just finished Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a study in sibling rivalry’. I won’t go into detail as it is well reviewed elsewhere on WordPress. Suffice to say that is a comprehensive academic analysis of the intertwined history of the two professions.

It refers to Sir Charles Barry’s major project on the New Palace of Westminster as a pivotal moment in the 19th Century. This is because it brought together key individuals (including the highly talented Augustus Pugin) with new materials to create a unique building, at a time when the traditional roles of architects and engineers were being tested by rapid technological change initiated by the First Industrial Revolution in Britain. Iron making had expanded from a village craft to a large scale manufacturing industry. The new textile mills which had proven to be the drivers of industrial growth were being built with iron to protect them from collapse during a fire, the scourge of timber-framed construction. This transferred across to other buildings and Charles Barry was an early adopter amongst British architects.

The Houses of Parliament still contain a large amount of iron behind the traditional wood and stone interiors and exteriors. Most of this is located in the floors and roof spaces, but a significant amount was to be found in the Victoria Tower until it was refurbished in the 1950s and 1960s. Given the sheer size and height of the tower, let alone its significance to the reigning monarch, Charles Barry was clearly keen to ensure that it stayed upright! For all these reasons he sought regular advice from a contracted engineer during construction.

It would seem that ground-breaking projects such as the New Palace of Westminster have forced architects and engineers to work closely together. As mentioned elsewhere on this website, Charles Barry’s sons Edward and Charles, both architects, worked closely with their brother John Wolfe, a consulting civil engineer. Their shared admiration for their father no doubt helped to minimise any sibling rivalries (literally).

Nowadays architects still appear to get most of the credit for the inspiring design side of novel structures. This epitomises the ongoing cultural divide between desk-bound ‘creatives’ and those who get their hands dirty actually building things.

Would Pugin were still here with us to give his views!

His father rebuilt Parliament

John Wolfe Barry was born the son of Sir Charles Barry, architect of the British Houses of Parliament or the New Palace of Westminster.

For more on how the Old Palace was rebuilt after a terrible fire in the early 19th Century see Caroline Shenton’s website. The story features Augustus Pugin as well as Big Ben.