Victorian Architecture: Dilemmas of Style
Victorian architecture was characterised by contentious debates over which style was most appropriate for the industrial age and the host of modern building types to which it gave rise. By the mid-nineteenth century, a liberal-progressive model of history as a continuous narrative was emerging. The preoccupation with progress caused anxiety among Victorian architectural writers who began to feel that culture should move in synchronisation with the forward march of history. There were numerous efforts to reform architecture, purging it of the eclecticism that today seems quintessentially Victorian. The architect and critic George Aitchison (1825-1910) occupied a formidable position in the architectural establishment, simultaneously serving as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. He was a commentator whose anxieties, according to J.M. Crook, ‘represented the central concerns of the generality of thinking architects.’ Aitchison was constitutionally opposed to the imitation of past styles and despised the climate of eclecticism. He found it shameful that the Victorian age had conceived no style of its own. With one eye trained on Victorian achievements in science and technology, Aitchison felt it was ignominious for architects to be mere ‘costumiers’ who dressed buildings in borrowed robes. ‘I cannot believe,’ he wrote, ‘that the nation that has given us the steam-engine, the railway, the telegraph . . . and all the triumphs of iron . . . can have sunk so much below the standard of our semi-barbarous forefathers of the thirteenth century as to be incapable of developing [its own] architecture.’ Aitchison’s anxieties revolved around a sense that the panoply of revived styles failed to convey the dynamism of Victorian modernity. The building press eventually came to echo these sentiments, with the Building News remarking that the Gothic Revival ‘is a failure when it tries to satisfy present wants . . . the Gothic house of [the 1870s] was a horror, the Gothic shop-front was a terror to the neighbourhood.’
Another commentator on matters of taste was the practising architect John J. Stevenson, author of House Architecture (1880). Stevenson took a baleful view of commercial architecture and attributed its faults to a debilitating catholicity and a growing public awareness of the myriad of styles:
Everyone with any pretensions to taste knows something about [architecture], has read Ruskin and considers himself (or herself) a judge . . . It may be that we know too much about architectural styles – that the variety of our knowledge confuses us . . . or our wealth, instead of helping us, may be the cause of our failure.
Stevenson suggested that cursory knowledge of architecture – and the money to spend on it via patronage – were becoming available to a wider sector of society, and that few of these new patrons had the requisite standard of taste. He went on to say that, ‘The evils of copying are multiplied and aggravated when, as at present, we attempt a number of styles at the same time . . . How can anyone master the principles and details of half a dozen styles?’ Stevenson echoed Aitchison’s preoccupation with modernity, stating that, ‘The feeling grew that there are elements of modern life which not middle-age chivalry nor asceticism, nor Gothic architecture, was fitted to satisfy.’ In other words, Gothic had become an anachronism.
Nevertheless, the Victorians used a bewildering array of styles. Here are some of the key examples:
Euston Arch: Neo-Classicism
Midland Grand Hotel: Gothic Revival
Scotland Yard: Queen Anne