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Industrial Desires and the Visual, Architectural and Spatial

Ambivalent and Contradictory: Victorian Architects’ Responses to Technology

Les architectes victoriens face à la technologie : contradictions et ambivalences
Richard W. Hayes


L’architecture victorienne est parcourue de contradictions. Technophilie et technophobie coexistent dans la culture architecturale de l’Angleterre de la seconde moitié du xixe siècle. D’une part, les architectes et les ingénieurs construisent des bâtiments à partir de matériaux innovants comme le fer et le verre et grâce à des procédés issus de la technologie moderne, comme la préfabrication et les biens manufacturés. D’autre part, c’est depuis la culture architecturale que s’élèvent les voix qui condamnent l’industrialisation. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin et John Ruskin, qui idéalisent le Moyen-Âge, utilisent l’architecture comme point de départ de leur critique du monde moderne et de leur dénonciation des effets désastreux de l’industrialisation sur la société. Comment les architectes victoriens parviennent-ils à composer avec de telles critiques tout en répondant aux besoins des clients de leur époque ? Cet article explore les contradictions de l’architecture victorienne à travers les pratiques architecturales de George Gilbert Scott et E. W. Godwin qui négocient ces demandes contradictoires consistant à utiliser la technologie moderne et à restituer une vision idéale du passé. Les plans que dessine Scott pour le Midland Grand Hotel de St. Pancras soulignent la contradiction architecturale qui réside dans l’utilisation de la technologie la plus récente pour redonner vie au passé. Godwin, quant à lui, adopte une attitude ambiguë face au renouveau architectural en considérant les atouts d’une architecture simple et dénuée de style, en accord avec les réalités de son temps. Les parcours de Scott et de Godwin soulignent la complexité des réponses face aux avantages et aux inconvénients de l’évolution technologique.

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Introduction: Iron versus Stone, or the Crystal Palace versus the Doge’s Palace

1Victorian architecture was riven with contradictions. Technophilia and technophobia commingled in British architectural culture of the second half of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, Britain’s status as an industrial powerhouse was incontrovertible. Architects and engineers gave shape to buildings that employed the most up-to-date materials and processes made available by modern technology. Iron and glass were used, prefabrication was explored as a new construction technology, and advances in ventilation, sanitation, and hygiene addressed the needs of a burgeoning mass society. On the other hand, some of the strongest condemnations of industrialism were voiced from within architectural culture. Both Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and John Ruskin saw architecture as the optimal site from which to mount a vigorous critique of the modern world. Pugin’s polemical volume of 1836, Contrasts, presented an unforgettable series of oppositions between the Christian Middle Ages construed as an idealized utopia and the debased modern world that industrialization and commercialism have created (Pugin 1836).

2Following in Pugin’s footsteps, Ruskin adjusted his predecessor’s message from a Catholic to a Protestant perspective, and presented the buildings of medieval Venice as touchstones that formed an antithesis to the dehumanizing currents in industrialism. From these Gothic stones, Ruskin launched a campaign against contemporary labour practices that seemed to degrade the modern worker into a little more than a machine operative (Sussman 77). Publishing the first volume of The Stones of Venice just after the completion of the Crystal Palace in 1851, Ruskin championed the Doge’s Palace in Venice as ‘the central building of the world’ and saw in its medieval architecture a rebuke to modern-day capitalism (Ruskin 17). Ruskin opposed the bounteous ornament and masterly craftsmanship of the fourteenth-century ducal palace to the products of nineteenth-century factories, organized on the principle of the division of labour. With the human toll exacted by modern manufacturing foremost in his mind, Ruskin wrote, ‘It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men:—Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life’ (Ruskin 165).

3But what about the practicing architects who followed in the wake of Pugin and Ruskin? How did they square these bracing critiques with the need to build for real-world clients in the here and now of the nineteenth century? The polarities of Victorian attitudes to modern technology can best be seen in the contrast between Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace and the numerous masonry buildings of the Gothic Revival. The Crystal Palace embraced with confidence the modern era through its gargantuan scale, its use of iron and glass, and its innovative assembly as a kit of prefabricated parts. In the Gothic Revival of the 1850s through the 1870s, by contrast, the thick-walled, stone-built architecture of the pre-industrial Middle Ages was heralded as a means to reject the more pernicious aspects of industrial society. Between these two extremes, was there a middle term that accurately describes how British architects of the late nineteenth navigated technology and industrialism? This essay proposes to unpack the contradictions in Victorian architecture by focusing on how two individual architects responded to modern industry and how the unresolved tensions in their responses shaped their practices.

‘…awakened from my slumbers…’

4The place to begin is with the strongest critique—A. W. N. Pugin’s Contrasts, the full title of which reveals the magnitude of the author’s intentions: A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and Corresponding Buildings Showing the Present Decay of Taste. At once a contentious polemic, a zealous defence of the Catholic faith, and a bracing social critique, the volume embodied many of the contradictions of the era. Victorian sage Thomas Carlyle had posited that the writing of history and prophecy were closely intertwined (Carlyle 18). This was nowhere more true than in Pugin’s trenchant series of contrasts between a medieval golden age and its debased modern counterpart, a publication that would go on to alter the course of nineteenth-century architecture. Central to Pugin’s 1836 book were fourteen engravings that opposed the past to the present, intended to proclaim ‘the wonderful superiority’ of the architecture of the Middle Ages by contrast with ‘the wretched state of architecture of the present day’ (Pugin 1836, 1; 30).

5Assailing his contemporaries’ faith in industrial progress, Pugin limned a pessimistic view of modernity as a latter-day downfall (Bergdoll 160). Britain’s rapidly-expanding industrial cities—many of which were beset by moral and physical squalor—engendered anxiety among many Victorians (Hill 153). Sharing these anxieties and motivated by his Catholic faith, Pugin wanted to show that Gothic architecture could serve as model for modern buildings. If adopted, the Gothic style would even lead to the moral regeneration of society (Hill 153). Architecture was no longer to be considered merely an expression of society but a veritable instrument of social reform.

6In 1841, Pugin published a revised version of his volume with two new pairs of images that powerfully summarized his contrast of medieval social harmony to contemporary social dysfunction [Fig. 1].

Fig. 1. A. W. N. Pugin. Contrasted towns in 1440 and 1840. Plate added to the second edition of Contrasts, 1841

Fig. 1. A. W. N. Pugin. Contrasted towns in 1440 and 1840. Plate added to the second edition of Contrasts, 1841

Courtesy Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York

7A dyad of birds-eye views of urban scenes opposed a fifteenth-century Catholic town to its nineteenth-century equivalent. The medieval town exemplifies the civic virtues of Christianity whereby caritas creates an ideal urban polity. Lush foliage mixes with well-kept urban fortifications that encircle a riverside town in which a dozen church towers and spires dominate in the skyline. Fast forward four hundred years to the 1840s, when the same town shows the ravages that have devolved from the loss of faith in what Pugin as a Catholic convert considered the true church: industrial smokestacks instead of spires dominate the skyline, one of the churches lies in ruin, while the foreground is overtaken by a high-walled, centralized jail alongside a lunatic asylum. Gas and iron works crowd the banks of the river, cutting it off from the citizens. Multi-storied, utilitarian factories also line the river which is now crossed by an iron bridge with a toll gate instead of the stone bridge of the medieval town with its centrally located chapel. Pugin anathematizes the jumble of churches in the modern town, since most house Protestant sects such as Baptists, Quakers, Wesleyans, and Unitarians which—along with a socialist hall of science—have in his view contributed to a breakdown in social order. Furthermore, Pugin anticipates a number of the themes of the twentieth-century social theorist Michel Foucault by foregrounding the prison and asylum as two of the most characteristic institutions of the modern world. The prison which Pugin depicts, however, is not technically a panopticon—the centralized prison type invented by Jeremy Bentham that was the focus of Foucault’s analysis (Foucault 195–228). Nevertheless, Pugin, like Foucault, saw a carceral and disciplinary imperative as intrinsic to modernity.

8The second image develops these themes by a diachronic pairing of a building type found in medieval and modern eras: poor houses [Fig. 2].

Fig. 2. A. W. N. Pugin. Contrasted residences for the poor. Plate added to the second edition of Contrasts, 1841

Fig. 2. A. W. N. Pugin. Contrasted residences for the poor. Plate added to the second edition of Contrasts, 1841

Courtesy Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York

9The selection highlights stark contrasts in care for the dispossessed, a topic of widespread concern following the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, legislation that led to the construction of workhouses for the unemployed and indigent (Hill 248–49). Idealizing the past in order to denounce the present, Pugin delineated a medieval community that housed the poor in a beautiful and orderly almshouse as part of a cloister attached to a church. By contrast, modern Britain throws its paupers into debtors’ prisons. Pugin’s drawing of an octagonal poor house references contemporaneous prisons such as John Havilland’s radial design of 1829 for the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Pugin located his modern poor house in an undifferentiated landscape that anticipates both the wasteland of Modernism and the junk-space of Postmodernism—a netherworld neither rural nor urban, which contrasts sharply with the planned and orderly medieval almshouse noteworthy for its life-sustaining kitchen garden and orchard. The medieval poor are looked after by a conscientious ecclesiastic giving alms to an indigent family, while the modern poor home is overseen by a master wielding chains, leggings, and a whip. Finally, as the poor reach the end of their lives they are buried with solemn dignity in the medieval example, while in the modern age, the deceased are just corpses to be carted off and dissected by dehumanizing, secular scientists.

10Pugin’s fervent moralism was new to architectural theory (Middleton and Watkin 1987, 373). As Pugin’s biographer Rosemary Hill wrote, ‘He pointed to the Middle Ages as a model not just for architecture but for society, for a coherent Christian civic order in which the poor would be fed, the old cared for, the children taught’ (Hill 1). The accent on moral values adopted by Pugin would go on to constitute Britain’s main contribution to nineteenth-century architectural thought (Middleton and Watkin 373). Following Pugin, ethical criteria determined much of the country’s architectural discourse. Prolific Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott (1811–78), for example, retrospectively declared, ‘I was awakened from my slumbers by the thundering of Pugin’s writings’ (Scott 373). Scott’s initial encounter with Pugin was a near-religious experience. Describing his moral awakening, he wrote, ‘Pugin’s articles excited me almost to fury, and I suddenly found myself like a person awakened from a long feverish dream, which had rendered him unconscious of what was going on about him’ (Scott 88). Consequently, to build Gothic became an all-encompassing moral duty to Scott and many of his peers in the Gothic Revival (Pevsner 9).

11Pugin’s own relationship to the modern age, however, was more complex than may be assumed based upon the images in Contrasts. As Clive Wainwright has noted, Pugin shared his generation’s enthusiasm for many aspects of innovation and progress (Wainwright 161). For example, far from opposing railways as a modern invention, he rode them constantly as a necessary part of a design practice that embraced the geographical reaches of the United Kingdom. He even compared himself to a railroad engine, stating, ‘I am such a locomotive being always flying about’ (Stanton 79). Pugin took a progressive view of machinery and new technologies in manufacturing, using steam-driven carving machines for some of the furniture he designed for the Houses of Parliament (Wainwright 165). Furthermore, at the level of civic improvements, he proposed that ‘there is no reason why noble cities, combining all possible convenience of drainage, water-course and conveyance of gas may not be erected’ (Pugin 1895). In his 1843 volume, An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture, he included a section entitled ‘Modern Inventions and Mechanical Improvements’, writing:

In matters purely mechanical, the Christian architect should gladly avail himself of those improvements and increased facilities that are suggested from time to time. The steam engine is a most valuable power for sawing, raising, and cleansing stone, timber and other materials. The old masons used wheels of great diameter in the erection of their buildings: this was, of course, a great increase of power over mere manual strength; and had they been acquainted with a greater, they would undoubtedly have used it. Why should ten minutes be expended in raising a body which could equally well be done in two? (Pugin 1895, 39–40)

12Pugin went so far as to assert that if he were ever to design a huge church, ‘I should certainly set up an engine that would saw blocks, turn detached shafts, and raise the various materials to the required heights’ (Pugin 1895, 40). Beyond even this expeditious acceptance of construction technology, Pugin’s most telling embrace of modernity was the very format of Contrasts, with its graphic boldness and compellingly concise pairings of engravings. Derived in part from the political cartoons and the popular press of the day, Pugin’s rhetorically exaggerated images introduced the techniques of mass media into architectural discourse (Bergdoll 159). Like the pointed visuals of modern advertising, Pugin’s polemical contrasts get their message across with devastating directness.

Midland Grand Hotel, St. Pancras Station, London, 1868-74: Contradictions Sustained

13In order to look out how the terms of debate set by Pugin influenced one of the era’s most successful practitioners, Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras Station in London is a useful example [Fig. 3].

Fig. 3. Midland Grant Hotel at St. Pancras Station. Photographed by Bedford Lemere after 1874

Fig. 3. Midland Grant Hotel at St. Pancras Station. Photographed by Bedford Lemere after 1874

Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive, ref: BL01101

14As noted above, Scott stated that he was morally awakened by reading Pugin and his design can serve as an illustrative case study in how a prominent architect took up Pugin’s challenge that Gothic architecture could be relevant to the nineteenth-century city. Using medieval German and Flemish precedents, Scott fashioned a secular building for a distinctively Victorian building type: a terminus hotel at one of London’s great railroad stations (Bergdoll 208). Such a new building type epitomized the astounding expansion of mechanized transportation and commercial culture in the Victorian era. As Herbert Sussman observed, railways were the most visible sign of technological progress in nineteenth-century Britain (Sussman 90) and large hotels were needed to lodge a new class of commercial travellers.

15The project was commissioned by the Midland Railway in order to expand its regional system by a dedicated London terminus with a conspicuous presence on the Euston Road corridor between King’s Cross and Euston stations (Summerson 1970, 39). Winning the design competition in 1866, Scott sought to demonstrate the aptness of Gothic architecture to modernity. Through its powerful massing, highly articulated skyline, and bold details, the Midland Grand Hotel, completed in 1874, persuasively asserted the pertinence of Gothic as an appropriate language for a modern civic monument, what was effectively a new city gate (Bergdoll 208).

16The hotel itself forms the frontage of what was one of the most significant achievements in Victorian engineering—the station proper, consisting of a vast, arched shed spanning 243 feet, built in 1863–65 to the designs of W. H. Barlow and R. M. Ordish (Hitchcock 267). Born in 1812 in Kent, William Henry Barlow was a civil engineer who had worked on a number of projects for British railway firms. With the assistance of engineer Rowland Mason Ordish, Barlow designed the extension of the Midland Railway’s line from Bedford to London, including its terminus at St. Pancras. Built of cast iron, Barlow and Ordish’s arched canopy was briefly the greatest arch span in the world (Summerson 1970, 38–40). In the twentieth century, architectural historian John Summerson succinctly summarized this pair of distinct achievements when he wrote, ‘At St. Pancras we see two things: In the shed, the highest flight in Victorian engineering . . . in the hotel, the most emphatic and uncompromising application of Gothic Revivalism to a secular purpose’ (Summerson 1970, 38). Instead of integrating the utilitarian, iron and glass shed with his rhetorical, brick and masonry hotel frontage, however, Scott maintained a duality. It is precisely the contrast if not contradiction between these two components that led twentieth-century architectural historians to criticize Scott’s design. Summerson himself voiced a characteristic critique, writing:

The building comes down to us as a lonely, obsolete monument, liberated from the emotional strife of its period. . . . Here we have, in effect two disintegrations. First, the disintegration of architecture and engineering: the total separation of functional and ‘artistic’ criteria, in separate heads and hands. Second, the disintegration of architecture itself by the compulsive intrusion of the question of style. (Summerson 1970, 45)

17The seeming split between Barlow and Ordish’s innovative engineering and Scott’s historicizing architecture as deplored by Summerson was not the primary focus of criticism during Scott’s era, even if the building received its fair share of scrutiny. The Building News, a prominent nineteenth-century architectural periodical, for example, acclaimed Scott’s ‘splendid structure’ as ‘a highly successful work architecturally’ that adapted the Gothic style to an up-to-date purpose (‘The Midland Grand Hotel’ 554). By contrast, architect J. T. Emmett took Scott to task in a lengthy article entitled ‘The State of English Architecture’, published in 1872 in The Quarterly Review. For Emmett, Scott’s design was ‘a monument of confectionary’ that was ‘showy and expensive’ with ‘polished marble enough to furnish a Cathedral’ (Emmett 301-2). Emmett condemned the enormous hotel as emblematic of the growing commercialism of Victorian Britain. ‘There is here a complete travesty of noble associations and not the slightest care to save these from a sordid contact,’ he wrote. ‘An elaboration that might be suitable for a Chapter house and Cathedral choir,’ Emmett concluded, ‘is used as an “advertising medium” for bagmen’s bedrooms and the costly discomforts of a terminus hotel’ (Emmett 302). As this churlish passage divulges, Emmett was most decidedly not convinced of the suitability of Gothic architecture to the new buildings types that emerged during the nineteenth century.

18Summerson’s own disquiet with the design follows such critiques but focuses more closely on the contrast between the engineering of the shed and the revivalism of the hotel. The question could be raised, however, whether this duality at St. Pancras is necessarily a bad thing or in fact evinces a realistic insight into larger contradictions within Victorian culture. The very adjacency of these independent yet constituent features may have an aesthetic charge as yet unremarked in the literature. As a disciple of Pugin, Scott understandably kept at a distance such an emblem of modern technology as the arched shed, built of iron and glass. The exuberant Gothic forms of his hotel do seem to respond with a commensurate level of historical virtuosity to the technological mastery embodied in the engineering of the shed. Indeed, even Summerson later recalibrated his assessment. Six years after deriding Scott’s work in the passage quoted above, Summerson continued to state that the contrast between the station and the hotel was ‘ludicrous’, but he acknowledged ‘a certain brilliance in the whole performance cannot be denied’ (Summerson 1976, 47).

19In one component of the hotel, however, Scott did fuse the Gothic Revival with modern engineering: the great ceremonial staircase. In a tour de force of design and modern technology, the stone steps are cantilevered from the side walls and supported in part by clearly expressed iron beams (Middleton and Watkin 340). With wall decorations in a medieval mode added by E. W. Godwin in 1877 (Soros 204–05), the staircase is a persuasive union of the Gothic and the modern, stone and iron, the decorative and the tectonic, the pointed arch and the cantilevered beam.

20Furthermore, Scott deployed the most up-to-date thinking on mechanical engineering throughout the hotel, which consisted of 250 rooms and public spaces such as a curved dining room [Fig. 4].

Fig. 4. George Gilbert Scott, Designs for St. Pancras Station and the Midland Grand Hotel, Euston Road, London. Interior Perspective of the Coffee Room, drawn by Thomas Graham Jackson

Fig. 4. George Gilbert Scott, Designs for St. Pancras Station and the Midland Grand Hotel, Euston Road, London. Interior Perspective of the Coffee Room, drawn by Thomas Graham Jackson

Courtesy Royal Institute of British Architects, RIBA-003-2661

21The entire hotel was a virtual machine, with the era’s most advanced ventilation, heating, and dust-removal systems (Bergdoll 202). Scott managed to keep these mechanical devices and systems as much out of sight as possible. The kitchen, for example, had its own ventilation shaft, kept separate from a dust shaft with inlets on each floor, terminating in a fireproof cistern. Further apparatuses were introduced for the prevention and extraction of fires, and an electric bell system facilitated service to the guests. Such acknowledgements of the benefits of modern ventilation were in accordance with Pugin’s practical acceptance of the advances in mechanical engineering, as mentioned earlier.

E. W. Godwin and an Architecture of Ambivalence

22In addition to George Gilbert Scott, the other architect to be examined in terms of contradictory responses to technology and progress is E. W. Godwin (1833-86). One of the most innovative figures in British design culture of the nineteenth century, Godwin was an aesthetic polymath who is perhaps most remembered today for his furniture, such as his ebonized sideboard of 1867–70, which has become an icon of the Aesthetic Movement [Fig. 5].

Fig. 5. E. W. Godwin, Sideboard, ca. 1867-70. Made by William Watt & Co. Ebonised mahogany, silver-plated fittings, and embossed Japanese leather paper inserts

Fig. 5. E. W. Godwin, Sideboard, ca. 1867-70. Made by William Watt & Co. Ebonised mahogany, silver-plated fittings, and embossed Japanese leather paper inserts

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London, CIRC.38:1 to 5-1953

23Scott’s junior by twenty years, Godwin pursued a decidedly different path from his fellow Goth. As a bohemian-tending ‘art-architect’, Godwin never enjoyed the professional success of Scott, who designed or restored over 800 buildings in the course of a prolific career capped by his being knighted in 1872.

24If Scott’s career manifests a working-out of Pugin’s influence, Godwin’s was in large measure a response to the other great British architecture critic of the nineteenth century: John Ruskin. For it was under the sign of Ruskin that Godwin designed his first important buildings. In 1861, at age twenty-seven, Godwin received the commission for the town hall for Northampton and with this building he joined the ranks of the most prominent architects of the Gothic Revival. Godwin stated that the Northampton Town Hall was ‘entirely founded on The Stones of Venice’ which he had read in 1858 (Reid 139). In 1865, a year after the completion of the Northampton Town Hall, Ruskin saluted Godwin by including him among the Gothic Revival architects whose work he judged to be ‘original and independent’ (Ruskin 1905, 23). Godwin also designed a warehouse in his hometown of Bristol as a Ruskin-inspired exploration of Venetian polychromy. In the twentieth century, historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock described the Bristol warehouse as ‘more subtly Ruskinian’ than any other building of its era (Hitchcock 332).

25As his career matured in an independent fashion, however, Godwin moved away from many aspects of his youthful enthusiasm for Ruskin. In contrast to Ruskin’s condemnation of modern manufacturing, for example, Godwin embraced in a matter-of-fact fashion most of the benefits modern technology offered. In 1876, for example, he wrote, ‘Let us take what modern civilization gives us: accept with thanks its sash windows, its plate glass, its iron construction, [and] its many-roomed habitations’ (Godwin 1876, 396). In concert with this attitude, Godwin did not object to machine fabrication of his furniture designs (Soros 246). This stands in stark contrast to William Morris’s staunch commitment to handicraft. As a design reformer, Godwin was intent on introducing hygiene and sanitation into the domestic realm. Along these lines, many of the minimal, unadorned features of his furniture designs derive not just from an aesthetic preference for simplicity and elegance but from functional concerns about eliminating potential dust traps and crevices for soil and urban soot (Soros 242–43).

26In tandem with his acceptance of modern technology, Godwin grew exasperated with the architectural revivalism of his peers. In 1875, Godwin declared, ‘The day of architectural revivals may be near its setting—I for one sincerely hope it is’ (Godwin 1875, 70). As an alternative to revivalism, Godwin looked to simple vernacular buildings for their intrinsic qualities of proportion, profile, and composition, free of an overlay of historical imagery. In a trip to Bruges, for example, he extolled ‘the value of masses of simple unadorned brickwork when well proportioned’ found in some of the town’s back streets (Godwin 1878b, 2). Godwin went so far as to entertain in his writings the possibility of a style-less, zero-degree architecture as an alternative to the surfeit of revivalism. In 1865 he wrote, ‘A thousand times better would be to content ourselves with farmhouse architecture, or no architecture at all, provided only that, whether it be farmhouse-like or nothing but mere building, it should, at least, be consistent from cellar to garret, and have a unity and honesty of purpose about it’ (Godwin 1865, 843). Godwin’s remark, consciously or not, echoes an observation Pugin had made in 1841 on the value of learning from ‘the peasant’s hut, the yeoman’s cottage, [and] the farmer’s house’ (Pugin 1895, 21). Pugin’s observation, with its suggestion of valuing humbleness of manner in contradistinction to ostentatious display, both accorded with his Christian faith and affirmed his precept that buildings should feature only what is ‘necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety’ (Pugin 1853, 1). While Godwin adhered to Pugin’s ‘picturesque utility’ as a compositional principle, he did not share the Catholic convert’s religious fervour or impulse to rehabilitate society.

27The closest Godwin came to his own ideal of a style-less architecture—what he called ‘mere building’—was his combined house and studio for American expatriate artist James Whistler on Tite Street in London’s Chelsea [Fig. 6].

Fig. 6. E. W. Godwin, ‘Tite St. or Front Elevation of House for J. A. McN. Whistler esqr Chelsea’. Pen and ink; Pencil; Water-colour; Wash. 1877

Fig. 6. E. W. Godwin, ‘Tite St. or Front Elevation of House for J. A. McN. Whistler esqr Chelsea’. Pen and ink; Pencil; Water-colour; Wash. 1877

© Victoria and Albert Museum Department of Prints and Drawings and Department of Paintings, Accessions 1963

28The design was marked by little more than a simple facade of white brick, windows in a variety of sizes, and a steeply pitched roof sheathed in green slate tiles. Such raw-boned architecture was a shock when built, leading critics to call it a ‘dead-house’ (Reid 166). ‘Mere building’ may have been the logical endgame for someone who had lost faith in the ideal of Gothic as means to reform society and create of Britain a New Jerusalem. It was a mode of architecture for what Godwin perceived was an historical interregnum in which the most appropriate response was ambivalence.

29Godwin’s career thus evinces an attenuation of Pugin’s and Ruskin’s grand narratives of social reformation through architecture. A growing animosity to his former mentor finds expression in a handful of articles Godwin published in the architectural press that cast a jaundiced eye on the critic. Typical of these is the sarcastic article from 1878 that opened with the query ‘Is Mr Ruskin living too long?’ Published nine months after the libel trial between Ruskin and Godwin’s friend and client Whistler, Godwin took aim at Ruskin’s growing irrelevance in light of modernity. Godwin wrote:

Is Mr Ruskin living too long? ... It is pretty plain we think that the professor knows more about the ‘Ethics of the Dust’ than the laws and actual conditions of trade … [I]t is many years since we abandoned the idea that the introduction of machinery lessened our comforts and made it more difficult for us to live. For ourselves, we should hardly like to go back to the ‘flail’ and the ‘packhorse’, but we should rather like to see our aged mentor seated on the one and carrying the other. (Godwin 1878a, 75)

30The cynical-tending comments reveal that Godwin, like Whistler, was of a very different generation than Ruskin, a generation who embraced without hesitation much of what contemporary life offered. But what did remain was the heightened aesthetic sensitivity that reading Ruskin had fostered in Godwin during his youth—an aesthetic sensitivity that Ruskin had awakened throughout Britain. The aestheticism of Godwin would not have been possible without Ruskin’s uncompromising elevation of art as a transcendent value in human life (Reid 2003, 303).

Conclusion: A Postmodern Toolbox

31In conclusion, the careers of George Gilbert Scott and E. W. Godwin manifest different aspects of contradictory attitudes to technology and modernity on the part of Victorian architects. Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel embodied quite literally the contradictions between modern engineering and an architecture predicated on historical revivalism. As for Godwin, his growing vexation with revivalism found expression in his search for a style-less, simple way of building. Yet Godwin never renounced historical research as a central facet of his own practice. And as Aileen Reid has suggested, Godwin remained committed to the fundamentals of Ruskin’s artistic theories in spite of his indifference to questions of social welfare (Reid 2003, 307–11).

32The lack of clear resolution in such positions led Summerson to use the word ‘failure’ to characterize Victorian architecture from his perspective in the 1970s (Summerson 1970, 1–18). Today, an alternative vocabulary may be needed in order to evaluate the contradictions, inconclusiveness, and tensions highlighted in this essay. Postmodern architectural discourse has favoured terms such as ‘contradiction’ and ‘ambivalence’, and these could serve as apposite interpretative implements in a conceptual toolbox (Venturi 30–45; 60–70). In his 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, for example, Robert Venturi explored themes of ‘contradiction adapted’ and ‘contradiction juxtaposed’ in order to highlight positive formal qualities often found in buildings outside the orthodox canon of modern architecture (Venturi 53, 60). Although Venturi did not allude to either Scott or Godwin, he espoused ‘contradictions in visual experience’ such as ‘the adjacencies and super-adjacencies of contrasting scales, directions, and functions’ (Venturi 60). Such an analytic framework and vocabulary would seem particularly germane to understanding Scott’s design at St. Pancras as a complex achievement rather than as a ‘failure’. Furthermore, ‘ambivalence’ became a leitmotif in later books by Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown since the term concisely conveyed a disenchantment attendant upon the loss of belief in the utopian ideals of modernism (Vinegar 15–18).

33In a larger, philosophical frame of reference, theorist Jean-François Lyotard referred to a postmodern way of perceiving that ‘refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable’ (Lyotard, xxv). Such a conceptual shift may help in bringing the work of Scott and Godwin closer to our own postmodern moment. As with the Victorians, the task of navigating the benefits and dangers of technology with an ever-present awareness of the historical past remains our predicament.

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Bergdoll, Barry. European Architecture 1750–1890. Oxford: OUP, 2000.

Carlyle, Thomas. ‘On History Again’. Thomas Carlyle: Historical Essays. Ed. Chris Vanden Bossche. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2002. 15–22.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. A. W. N. Pugin. Contrasted towns in 1440 and 1840. Plate added to the second edition of Contrasts, 1841
Crédits Courtesy Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
Fichier image/png, 1018k
Titre Fig. 2. A. W. N. Pugin. Contrasted residences for the poor. Plate added to the second edition of Contrasts, 1841
Crédits Courtesy Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
Fichier image/png, 1,8M
Titre Fig. 3. Midland Grant Hotel at St. Pancras Station. Photographed by Bedford Lemere after 1874
Crédits Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive, ref: BL01101
Fichier image/png, 369k
Titre Fig. 4. George Gilbert Scott, Designs for St. Pancras Station and the Midland Grand Hotel, Euston Road, London. Interior Perspective of the Coffee Room, drawn by Thomas Graham Jackson
Crédits Courtesy Royal Institute of British Architects, RIBA-003-2661
Fichier image/png, 1,1M
Titre Fig. 5. E. W. Godwin, Sideboard, ca. 1867-70. Made by William Watt & Co. Ebonised mahogany, silver-plated fittings, and embossed Japanese leather paper inserts
Crédits © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, CIRC.38:1 to 5-1953
Fichier image/png, 1,2M
Titre Fig. 6. E. W. Godwin, ‘Tite St. or Front Elevation of House for J. A. McN. Whistler esqr Chelsea’. Pen and ink; Pencil; Water-colour; Wash. 1877
Crédits © Victoria and Albert Museum Department of Prints and Drawings and Department of Paintings, Accessions 1963
Fichier image/png, 811k
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Richard W. Hayes, « Ambivalent and Contradictory: Victorian Architects’ Responses to Technology », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 87 Printemps | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 23 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3578

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Richard W. Hayes

Richard W. Hayes is an architectural historian, educated at Columbia and Yale universities. His previous publications include The Yale Building Project (Yale University Press, 2007), a comprehensive history of an influential educational programme. He has also published extensively on the Aesthetic Movement, including a chapter in E. W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer, edited by Susan Weber Soros (Yale University Press, 1999). The book received numerous awards and was selected as ‘one of the most notable books of the year’ by the New York Times Book Review. Since then, Hayes has published three additional chapters on Godwin in peer-reviewed volumes. Hayes has received grants and awards from the American Institute of Architects, the American Architectural Foundation, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the European Architectural History Network, the New York State Council on the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. A visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge in 2009 and 2013, Hayes is now a life member of Clare Hall.
Richard W. Hayes est historien de l’architecture, diplômé de l’université de Columbia et de l’université de Yale. Il a publié The Yale Building Project (Yale University Press, 2007) qui porte sur l’histoire d’un programme éducatif de premier plan. Il a écrit de nombreux articles et consacré plusieurs chapitres d’ouvrages au Mouvement Esthétique, dont un chapitre publié dans l’ouvrage dirigé par Susan Weber Soros, E. W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer (Yale University Press, 1999) qui a reçu de nombreux prix et a été désigné par le New York Times Book Review comme « un des livres les plus remarquables de l’année ». Depuis, Hayes a publié trois articles sur Godwin dans des revues scientifiques à comité de lecture. Hayes a reçu plusieurs bourses de l’American Institute of Architects, de l’American Architectural Foundation, de la Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, du Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, de l’European Architectural History Network, du New York State Council on the Arts, de MacDowell Colony, et de Yaddo. Chercheur invité à l’Université de Cambridge de 2009 à 2013, il est depuis membre à vie de Clare Hall.

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