Monday, July 8, 2013

The Politics of Architecture

Classic Georgian architecture. This example is in York.
Classic Georgian architecture. This example is in York.
Posted by Elizabeth Ellen Carter

Did you know that the choice of architecture in the 18th century may have revealed much about your political and philosophical leanings as it did your personal taste?

The two competing styles around this time were the Georgian/Neoclassical and the Gothic Revival.

When we think of the Georgian period in architecture we think of the cliff-fronted rectangular buildings, the windows and doors of which follow strict lines of symmetry.

The American Revolution may have cut political ties with England but they didn't sever architectural ones.

There are a large number of old and important homes in the United States that carry those specific design elements - classical Greek columns, cornice with dentiles over the windows and quoins - the masonary corner blocks standing proud which are so distinctive of the Georgian style.

The interest in all things classically Greek was very much at the heart of the 18th century Enlightenment movement and liberal political thought.
For the first 50 years of the Hanoverian dynasty the same Whig aristocracy that controlled the government also dictated artistic thought. The splendid architectural achievements of Sir Christopher Wren and his followers during the reigns of the three preceding Stuart monarchs were in the extravagant and monumental Baroque style of continental Europe, which the Whig aristocrats eventually judged to be of questionable taste.
The Enlightenment/French Revolution fuelled Greek revival is very much in evidence in the fashion depicted in this 1808 portrait
The Enlightenment/French Revolution fuelled Greek revivalism
Interest in Greek philosophic and classicist thought became the hallmarks of the 'rationalists' and 'intellectuals' of the time and thus neoclassism in architecture became emblemetic of modern republics of both the United States and France which is one of the reasons why examples government institutions such as courthouses are often symbolised by a Parthenon-style features.

No more evident was the popularity of neo-classism expressed but in fashion where the 18th century began with elaborate panniers, constrictive corsets and swathes of luxurious fabrics and ended with the simple lines, minimally decorated and humble fabrics of the Regency period - a fashion adopted from the French who in the Napoleonic era named it the Empire silhouette and from where we get the term empire waist which is still used in fashion terms today.

But there was another competing artistic and philosophical movement which arose at the time - the Gothic Revival. In architectural terms Gothic Revival turned to medieval architecture for its inspiration.

New homes were built to resemble small castles. Castellated towers and pointed turrets were built and decorated with elaborate pierced mouldings in wood, stone and iron - depending on the scale and the wealth of the client.

Medieval churches with their arched windows were another sources of inspiration. Interiors were richly and elborately decorated with wood panelling, coloured fabrics on the walls - later made popular with the introduction of mass produced wallpaper in the 19th century.

Strawberry Hill House, pictured here in 2012.
Strawberry Hill House, pictured here in 2012
A marvellous example of this form of architecture can be found in Strawberry Hill House in London where its owner Horace Walpole took a 17th century cottage and spent the next 20 years turning it into one of the most fascinating and fantastic examples of Gothic Revival architecture. The intellectual war for hearts and minds continued from the 18th century into the 19th and while the 'new republics' turned to the classical Greeks to provide the symbol of their philosophical intent. The 'old republics' particularly those of England and Germany, turned to the medieval Gothic for theirs.

One of the most striking and long lived examples of this is something that is instantly recognisable as symbol of London itself. The Palace of Westminister - home to the Big Ben clock and the Tower, recently renamed Elizabeth Tower in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.

Although of much earlier history, the Old Palace was destroyed by fire in 1835 and contract for its reconstruction won by architect Charles Barry with his design for a building in the Perpendicular Gothic style.

An example of pre-Raphaelite romanticism.
Awww... How romantic! An example of pre-Raphaelite romanticism.
 The word 'Gothic' was originally an insult, associating the style with German tribes who had ransacked Rome bringing to an end to the antiquarian Empire and bringing forth the beginning of the mythmaking that erroneously reduced the innovation and culture of the medieval period to the epithet - 'dark ages'. 

While Enlightenment philosophy has science and strict rationalism at its core, Romanticism embraced emotion and nature in its art and literature.

The idealism of the medieval period with its notions of civility, chivalry and romantic love were overlayed with explorations of mysticism and spirituality through art and literature the most readily recognisable being the Pre-Raphaelite movement of the mid-19th century.

Althought the philosophical rationale behind these styles has retreated to the field of the academic, their influence has been felt even into the 21st century with various revivals of Art Nouveau with its naturalistic and organic free flowing forms and Art Deco with its strict geometry and futuristic lines.

Elizabeth Ellen Carter's first novel, Moonstone Obsession set in England and France in 1790 is to be published by Etopia Press later this year. She is working on her second title Warrior's Surrender, set in the wilds of Northumbria in 1074 - post  Norman Conquest.        


Cheryl Leigh said...

An interesting post, Elizabeth. I love the architecture of The Palace at Westminster. It's my favourite building in the whole world. :)

I'm looking forward to reading your book as I love that period.

Elizabeth Ellen Carter said...

Thank you Cheryl,
We learn about our future by know our past which is why I love historicals!

Suzi Love said...

Wonderful, Elizabeth.
Love the architecture and thanks for such great information,