A National Style?

During the Victorian era, the search was on for a national style of architecture, to embody the sense of national character in major public buildings. It was also about the need to re-assert a rule of taste in building, the contemporary thought being that the classical rule had broken down at the end of the Georgian era.

Architecture is two things: it is service and art. Hence the tension between structure and appearance, function and form. Hence too the discord built into that eternal triangle: commodity, firmness and delight. Therein -- at all times -- lies the architect's dilemma. But during the nineteenth century that dilemma was compounded first by changing demands, secondly by advancing technology, and thirdly by the phenomenon of historicism: the multiplication of stylistic choice. The result was a crisis in confidence. In religion, literature and philosophy the mid-Victorian period was an age of doubt. So too with architecture: even the greatest Victorian architecture was shot through with uncertainty. That uncertainty was the dilemma of style.’ J. Mordaunt Crook, The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern, Chicago, 1997.

The Gothic revival

The two major schools of architecture during the Victorian period were the Gothic revival, and the Classical (or Greek) revival. The classical revival had held sway over European architecture virtually since the Renaissance, and British architecture from Inigo Jones (early 17th C). Almost every building since then, and until Robert Adam and James Wyatt with the Romantic castle style, was in some way classically influenced. Gothic revival in it’s Victorian form started with the publication of Augustus Pugin’s book, Contrasts; or, a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the 14th and 15th centuries and similar buildings of the Present Day; showing the Present decay of Taste (1836). Before this, Gothic revivalism had been a consequence of the romantic, and picturesque movements in art, resulting in buildings such as Wyatt’s Fonthill Abbey, (1796-1812). Pugin’s book lamented the decline of Taste (sic.) in building, resulting in bland classical buildings, with no individuality. Pugin proposed the idea that English architecture had taken a wrong turning at the end of the 16th century, and architects should go back to earlier forms, out of which a more correct style, or one appropriate to the nineteenth century might evolve. Pugin took the decorative Gothic of Wyatt, and formalised it, using Neo-Classical theories of design, and applied them to the Gothic. Pugin detested the work of James Wyatt, insisting it wasn’t in the authentic Gothic style, but merely a Classical building dressed with Gothic details. Pugin maintained that the Gothic style was more than an aesthetic taste, he thought it was a cure for the ills of the modern, industrial, urban society, Pugin wanted a return to medieval values of faith and the expression of faith through church-building. Pugin wanted an architecture of moralist nostalgia and spiritualism, basing almost his entire design repertoire on the ‘Early Middle pointed Style’, (c 1300), what he considered to be the epitome of mediaeval church building.

The Houses of Parliament

Pugin’s most famous project, The Houses of Parliament (1840-60, House of Lords completed 1847), built with Charles Barry. Pugin and Barry’s combined design won the competition run for the rebuilding contract, their entry design that won the competition was not the design finally constructed, the planned design called for an enormous ceremonial gateway to an internal courtyard, around which were parliamentary offices. The cost of the essential parts of this design made Parliament abandon it, but the main block of the Houses of Parliament were built. Incidentally, the facilities that would have been provided by the additional block have now been built on the other side of Bridge Street, in Portcullis House. The Gothic style was chosen for the Houses of Parliament, it was intended to emphasize the historical continuity of the parliament system, and was harking back to the ‘golden age of England’. John Ruskin provides justification for the Gothic style: “In public buildings the historical purpose should be still more definite (than in domestic). It is one of the advantages of Gothic as broadly opposed to classical, - that it admits of a richness of record altogether unlimited. It’s minute and multitudinous sculptural decorations afford means of expressing, either symbolically or literally, all that need be known of national feeling or achievement”. – John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849)

Barry’s exterior of The Houses of Parliament, was an essentially classical mass. The river frontage is a symmetrical block, with two smaller towers on each end, recalling Inigo Jones’s design for new government offices along Whitehall, and revealing Barry’s preference for a classical model. The form may be classical, but the detailing is wholeheartedly Gothic, with the characteristic slim windows, spires and bell-towers. Pugin’s interior is a riot of colour and detail, he personally designed it down to every last detail ‘From the chandeliers to the coat-hooks’.

Victorian Classicism

The Classical style of the 19th Century was forward-looking and innovative, in contrast to the retrospective architecture of the Gothic revivalists. Charles Cockerell (1788 – 1863) believed in the ‘permanent validity of classical architecture’, and it’s ability to adapt to new tastes, while still retaining it’s rules and proportion. He was open to influence from classical buildings of all periods, and saw himself as the inheritor of the whole classical language of architecture, not just a small part of it.

The Taylorian Institute (1839-45) contains daring conjunctions of Greek columns with Roman arches, and a range of eclectic stylistic references in which Cockerell manages to combine almost the whole repertoire of classical styles. Charles Barry (1795-1860) continued Cockerell’s tendency to draw from Italian 16th century architecture in buildings like the Reform Club (1837-41), modelled on the Palazzo Farnese, and Cliveden, Bucks. (1850-1). Barry had to conform with the Government’s request that the houses of parliament be in a ‘Gothic or Elizabethan style’, but clearly he would much rather build something in the 16th century Italianate style.

Cuthbert Brodrick won the competition to build a town hall for Leeds in 1852, in a competition judged by Charles Barry. The brief asked for a building type that did not exist in Britain so far, a building containing concert rooms, court houses, assembly rooms, and reception rooms for the mayor, all to be under one roof. Brodrick’s design was centred around a great hall, with four courtrooms in the corners, and access corridors around the hall. The design was defiantly classical with a pillared south front, in the Corinthian order. The building was set off with a huge clock tower, designed to be seen from ‘everywhere in the town’. The interior was designed on a lavish scale, the town council having decided that nothing was too good for their town hall, each courtroom was decorated in a different style, and the mayor’s reception rooms particularly splendid.

Broderick designed special capitals for the interior columns, containing local references, the ‘Leeds Order’, has either a ram’s head, signifying the wool trade, on which the town’s economy was based, or an owl, based on the Savile family emblem, which is part of the coat of arms of Leeds.

The Foreign Office

The Foreign Office was another major building for which a competition was run, this time in 1857. George Gilbert Scott won the competition with an Italian style building, but wanted to build a Gothic building. Scott maintained that London needed a variety of colour and ornament in it’s building, which could be obtained by building in the Gothic, citing the example of the Crown Life Assurance office, Blackfriars Bridge (Deane & Woodward 1856), a standard terraced block that has been embellished in the Venetian Gothic style, called ‘What London would be if Palmerston would allow it’. Palmerston was the most vigorous opponent to the Gothic style, and demanded that the foreign office be in a classical style, a style ‘best adopted for a public office, and most available for modern construction’. Parliament had been made Gothic because of the associational values, the style connected with the time when the House of Commons gained most of its liberties. Similarly, this argument was made for the Foreign office, ‘the association to be desired was that of the period in which we lived, and the Italian style was that which by its breadth, simplicity and symmetry best represented modern sentiments’. Palmerston likened the Gothic to an ‘infinity of bad taste’, likened classical to a ‘paradise of white marble’, praised Scott’s Italianate design as combining ‘with sufficient beauty and ornament great moderation of expense’. Scott and the proponents of the Gothic style eventually gave in to parliamentary opinion, and the Italianate style foreign office was built.

New Materials and the Gothic Style

The use of new building materials, such as cast iron, had a massive impact on architectural styles. Pugin’s original Gothic revival doctrine had insisted that no iron should be used, and Gothic should only be built in authentic (i.e. brick and stone) materials. With the Oxford University Museum (Deane & Woodward 1855-60), the architects managed to combine the innovative use of cast iron with the Gothic language, combining an arched iron roof with Gothic detailing made from iron. This was attached to a front block in the ‘standard’ Gothic style, with terracotta and stone detailing. This method of hiding the ironwork behind Gothic fantasy was also done at St. Pancras’ station, by George Scott, with the enormous station hotel hiding the iron train shed behind it. The only way it was possible to roof over such a large area was to use iron, and the station hotel hides the ugly ‘engineering architecture’ behind it.

The collapse of the Gothic Revival

By 1880, the Gothic revival had almost completely died, except for new church building. The main reason for its decline was the much greater cost needed, and because the builders of the time understood the methods needed to construct classical styles buildings, and there was only a select few firms who specialised in Gothic revival buildings. The style of Wren became popular again, and was used for the new Admiralty and War Office buildings. By this time, Norman Shaw had devised an ‘Old English Style’ for houses, and the arts and crafts movement was going away from the Gothic and towards Norman Shaw’s vision of the rural vernacular. The taste for large, showy Gothic country houses was diminishing, and Shaw’s vernacular style became more popular.


D. Linstrum, Towers And Colonnades, The Architecture of Cuthbert Brodrick, Leeds, 1999
M.H. Port, Imperial London, Yale, 1995
C. Cunningham, Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls, London, 1981
D. Watkin, A History of Western Architecture, London, 2000