1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Present Position of Architecture (1875)

(Part 116)


We have, in conclusion, a few remarks to make upon the present position of architecture. The increase of commence and of wealth in the United Kingdom of late years, has thrown into the hands of the architect and engineer a vast amount of work both for public and private edifices. Not only has there been an increase in the number of buildings, but the old parts of very many towns are being rebuilt on a larger and grander scale, and new, wide streets are being formed through their busiest and most densely peopled quarters. In London, in the great manufacturing towns of the north, in the universities, in the seaport towns north and south, and in the pleasure-seeking cities on the sea-board on every coast, this process is going on at a rapid rate; and we look with interest and anxiety as to what are replacing the old buildings (many of them land-marks in our art( which have been destroyed, or what is to range beside those which are left. And besides these reconstructions, there are rising up, in every part of the country, railway stations, colossal hotels, baths and washhouses, working men’s dwellings, and such other edifices as the Crystal and Alexandra Palaces, of a kind entirely unknown to the past generation. In addition to these we have the altogether new towns of Swindon, Wolverton, Crewe, Fleetwood, Barrow-in-Furness, Middlesborough, &c. These last afford, perhaps, the least encouraging view of modern work ascontrasted with the old. Our old towns were usually picturesquely placed on the margin of a river for trade, or on a hill for defence; gradually increased round some nucleus of importance – a church or monastery or castle; and comprised the mansions of the rich as well as the shops of the trader and dwellings of the poor. But the modern town is all built at once, on some sudden call, on a site selected, perhaps, simply from its being at the junction of two railways. It shows only long straight streets of small dwellings for artisans, unbroken, except, perhaps, by a church, or an assembly-room, or more forcibly by the long, unpicturesque lines of railways sheds. Neither the architect nor the engineer has had much to do with thus, and the result is about as wretchedly uninteresting a series of streets as it is possible to conceive. Horace Walpole’s satirical description of London, "a gigantic mass of littleness," would apply well to them.

It has been better with the extension of the old town. At first this gave us such long bald lines of streets as Bath shows in stone, and Baker Street, &c., in London, in brick. These led by a natural result to a more ornate class, and we had the Regent’s Park, and Regent Street, London wherein a number of houses are grouped together into one mass, abounding with Roman columns and cornices, and receiving something of the massive appearance and lightness of stone from being covered with stucco, just as most of Palladio’s building is Italy were. But whilst they were far better in general effect than the class which preceded them, the columns and their long unbroken lines of cornices often sadly interfered with the requirements of the dwellings, and in the new streets and terraces of our towns we see but few imitations of Roman porticoes and pediments, and the speculating builder mostly limits himself to putting a portico to the door, a few mouldings (in stucco) to the windows, and a slight cornice as a finish to the tops.

On the Continent the usual style of living – in flats – enables the builders to produce, with the same number of rooms, a more massive external effect than with us. One large entrance doorway suffices for the whole, and thus four or five separate houses (as they are in reality) have the effect of one large mansion. Still more is this the cave when a courtyard, requiring a carriage entrance, occupies the centre of the building.

Of a far higher class than the private dwellings are many of the places of business recently erected in our great towns. In the new banks, exchanges, insurance offices, &c., many of our most noted architects have produced good results; and if we cannot congratulate ourselves upon much that is being done, we can, at least, say that the new work is an improvement upon the old. In no instance, perhaps, is the advance more to be noted than in the clubhouses and the great warehouses for storing the lighter class of goods. A façade having long lines of windows, in many stories, each story of considerable height, and with only one main entrance doorway, affords the materials, of course, for forming a massive and pleasing effect much as that of the Continental houses above described. And the opportunity has certainly not been lost. Our plan, too, of letting each owner build to a considerable extent according to his own design, results in a more picturesque arrangement of our streets than those of a Continental town, which usually present lines of uninteresting houses, all of much the same design.

As a still further mark of progress we must mention the town-halls and other civic structures at Bradford, Halifax, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Plymouth, Preston, &c., and the local museums and picture galleries, as at Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter, Leeds, Liverpool, Oxford, Salisbury, &c. Not only do these great civic building give importance by their magnitude to the towns, but they lead to other works in rivalry or imitation, just as a mediaeval building of note did in olden times, and the goodness of their design is therefore a matter of prime importance. The museums are gradually helping to fill up a void most painfully felt by every stranger in our towns, and will help to preserve many local pieces of antiquity which would otherwise have been lost.

Of a higher class still are the colleges at Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Manchester (owens), &c., and many of the editions to those of the old universities. In these colleges the number of rooms of varying size, the entrance tower, and the internal quadrangles, allow of picturesque effects, but seldom present any one very grand mass. This has, however, been produced at University College, London, by the central portico (probably the finest in England), which rises high above the rest of the edifice.

In the civic buildings a bolder effect can be produced by their actual requirements, viz., a grand hall of large area and height, with spacious corridors and staircases, and a high clock tower, which seems to furnish the natural complement to such structures. If we have not rivaled Ypres or Louvain, we have at least improved on the wretched civic buildings of the last century.

Larger and grander than any of the above works are the Houses of Parliament in London. However much of the detail may be open to criticism, it must be readily acknowledged that the architect had in his mind, and steadily carried out, the idea of combining the whose into one grand mass, in place of leaving it as a mere series of fronts, as in the Bank of England or Somerset House; and the variously designed steeples and towers culminating in the one grand tower at the royal entrance form the whole into one of the grandest buildings of the age.

Of a class unknown to the last generation are the railway stations, some of the largest edifices of the time, but usually almost hidden by another new class of buildings, viz., the colossal hotels. The stations themselves are in the main mere great vaults of glass on iron ribs, whose curved outlines are disfigured by the iron ties which the safety of a great extent of such roofing requires, and thus the only beauty, viz., the curved form, is to a large extent obscured. It is a fortunate circumstance that this form is the best adapted to the purpose, and when, as in many notable instances, the skill or good taste of the engineer has allowed of the ties being dispensed with, the vast size and lightness of the vault have a very impressive look. The hotels, which is most cases form the frontage of the stations in our country, are, for the most part, worthy of the striking position which they occupy; but they are chiefly by living architects, and so beyond the scope of our criticism. No one, however, can study the way in which most of them are attached to the station buildings which they front without wishing most heartily that the engineer of the one and the architect of the other had worked somewhat more in harmony with each other.

Of an entirely novel design and construction was the Crystal Palace, admirably adapted, no doubt, for the purpose for which Paxton designed it, or for any other purpose for which a flood of light without impediment is required. But the manner in which the second, at Sydenham, has been altered is instructive. Where a grand orchestra was required the top was covered as a great sounding board, and when pictures or arts works were to be exhibited the sides were closed,-the result showing plainly that the top lights are of the chief value, the side ones being little required except for the prospect through; and even for picture galleries a much smaller amount of light is required than in the Crystal Palace roof. Its curved form is, however, very pleasing, and the brilliancy of the light glass roof will ensure its being adopted in many buildings where a vivid light is required.

We have now passed hurriedly in review most of the forms of modern architecture, and we need scarcely add that it is developed in every conceivable style. If a church is to built we may, indeed, pretty safely predict that it will be in one of the many pointed styles, but even then it may be English, French, or Italian. But of any other kind of edifice no one could safely predict the style. Probably it might be safe to assert that a theatre would not have (as Covent Garden in London had) a Grecian Doric portico, or an Egyptian pylon be made to do duty (as in Piccadilly, London) for a couple of shops. One might also be tolerably sure that a monument to a distinguished person would not be a granite column with a staircase up the middle, and a statue almost out of sight, with a lighting conductor through the head at top, as at the duke of York’s column, London. But short of this, almost any prediction as to the style might come true; and as nearly every building of note throughout the world is brought to the eyes of the public be means of engravings or photographs, there seems little chance of its being otherwise.

In the United States the architects of the public buildings appear to be of much the same feeling as were English architects some years ago. The churches are often Gothic, but the other great edifices are in the main Italian, such as the capitols of Ohio, New York (Albany), and Washington. The last is a building of great size and picturesque outline, depending for its chief effect on the lavish use of porticoes and colonnades.

In Canada very much the same state of things exists as in the United States, the art in each being much the reflex of that in the old country.

The adoption of Greek, Roman, or Italian architectural details, little modified by climate and customs, is, in fact to be noted in almost every country-any form of art peculiarly national being now abandoned in their favour; and if the houses in Paris were to transported to Berlin or Cairo, they would simply agree with what has already been done in those cities. And if, further, the Bourse or the Pantheon at Paris, the Museum at Berlin, the Glyptothek at Munich, or the great church of St Isaac at St Petersburg, were to be severally changed to any of the other cities, it would be fairly in harmony with the modern works around it, though the nationality and language of the peoples in those cities are utterly distinct from each other. This abandonment of natural and peculiar styles is now producing another result quite foreign to anything known in art history before. from the earliest period known until the 17th century almost every nation had its own peculiar forms of art, and practiced it (modified, perhaps, by the conditions of climate) in every part of the world which it colonized or conquered; and the result was the interesting remains of Roman art, clearly to be identified as such in Europe, Asia, and Africa; of Norman in France, England, Italy, and Sicily, and of Saracenic from Spain to India. This clear identification of a nation by its art works is as valuable to the historian as to the artist. But we can look for this no longer. We ourselves build Greek, Roman, or Italian palaces in our great towns of India, whilst close by perhaps, is a church or cathedral in our English style of Gothic, and a college in the style of the Saracen, who themselves, centuries back, brought it with them as the art of foreign conquerors from Egypt or Persia. And the French in Algiers, to celebrate the triumph of their religion, erect a splendid church copied from the mosques of the people whom they have conquered, and whose religion they detest.

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