Classical vs. Gothic: the Battle of the Styles at Westminster

Created on Wednesday 13th January 2021 by:
Murray Tremellen

Since the emergence of modern parliamentary democracy, countries around the world have adopted a variety of architectural styles for their parliament buildings, as the recent conference at the Bartlett showed. Classical styles, inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, have proved to be popular and enduring choices, and in December 2020 they suddenly found a new champion in Donald Trump’s US administration. On 21st December 2020, the White House issued an executive order decreeing that classically-inspired styles “shall be the preferred and default architecture for Federal public buildings”.

The order was couched in populist rhetoric: it claimed to defend the taste of “the American people” against an out-of-touch “architectural elite”.  Advocates of Modern styles would, no doubt, dispute these assertions, and even classical architects do not unanimously support the executive order. This controversy is nothing new, nor is it unique to the USA. A similar debate rumbled on for decades in nineteenth-century Britain: the principal difference was that in those days the choice was not between Classical and Modern, but between Classical and Gothic. The dispute culminated in the famous 1850s “Battle of the Styles” over the design of the new Foreign Office. However, the Palace of Westminster was an even greater architectural prize, and the battle to secure its stylistic character had begun much earlier.

View of Westminster Hall, Law Courts &c From the North West. Coloured lithograph by Samuel Burton after C. Russell. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1420
View of Westminster Hall, Law Courts &c From the North West. Coloured lithograph by Samuel Burton after C. Russell. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1420

Various schemes to rebuild the medieval Palace were proposed from the 1730s onwards. However, it was only at the end of the eighteenth century, as the Gothic Revival began to gain traction, that the question of style became contentious.[1] In the 1790s, John Soane and James Wyatt fought for a prestigious commission to rebuild the House of Lords. Soane produced an ambitious scheme which would have screened off Westminster Hall and St Stephen’s Chapel behind new neoclassical buildings. However, Wyatt ultimately got the job and, as discussed in a previous post, he gave the Lords a badly-executed Picturesque Gothic façade, which attracted scathing criticism. Soane got another chance in the 1820s, when he was asked to create several new buildings at Westminster, including a new building for the Law Courts. The latter proved particularly contentious because of its proximity to Westminster Hall, one of the most important medieval Gothic buildings in Britain. Soane proposed a Palladian-style structure to match the 1730s "Stone Building" on St. Margaret's Street, arguing that Westminster Hall’s “magnificence and…character” would be better preserved by making the new building entirely distinct from it.[2] He thus anticipated the later philosophy of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), that modifications to historic buildings should be made in a contrasting style so as not to be confused with the historic elements. However, a vocal group of MPs, led by Henry Bankes, opposed the use of “a different order of architecture…grafted onto the old Gothic”.[3] In this, they foreshadowed Trump’s executive order, which argues that juxtaposing different styles produces a “discordant mixture”. To Soane’s fury, Bankes’ committee eventually forced him to produce a new, Gothic design (see illustration). Thus, one of the leading figures of the architectural profession had his stylistic choice overturned by politicians – but in this era it was the architect, not the politicians, who favoured classicism.  

Just a few years later, the 1834 fire necessitated a total redevelopment of the Palace. Both the main party leaders, the aristocratic Whig Lord Melbourne and the nouveau-riche Tory Sir Robert Peel, initially favoured the Office of Works’ architect, Robert Smirke. He produced an Italianate scheme which was accepted by a parliamentary committee. However, they changed their mind after Sir Edward Cust, another vocal Gothicist, campaigned in the press for a competition. [4] In contrast to the populist tone of Trump’s Executive Order, Cust’s proposal was unashamedly elitist: he wanted a select competition of architects in the “very first line” of the profession, whilst the judges were to be “gentlemen” who would have sufficient leisure time in which to scrutinise the plans.[5] Cust was overruled on this point and an open competition was held. Nevertheless, his elitist attitude was slightly ironic because middle-class antiquaries, such as John Carter, Edward Brayley, and John Britton, had worked hard to stimulate interest in Gothic and bring it back into fashion during the 1790s and 1800s.[6]

Charles Barry's revised design for the Houses of Parliament, 1836. © Parliamentary Estates Archive
Charles Barry's revised design for the Houses of Parliament, 1836. © Parliamentary Estates Archive

If Gothic had attracted advocates from across the social spectrum, then Classicism had done the same. George IV had used it for many of his great architectural projects, such as Regent Street and Buckingham Palace (although he was by no means averse to using Gothic in other locations, such as at Windsor Castle). Despite this royal approval, the Classical style was also favoured by Radical MPs, led by Joseph Hume, who wanted to use the French Chamber of Deputies as the model for a new parliament. Nor was there consensus within the architectural profession. Charles Barry, who ultimately won the Westminster competition, was a classicist by preference, but he was willing to respect his clients’ stylistic wishes.[7] The resulting design was a compromise, a building broadly classical in plan, but clothed in Perpendicular Gothic decoration. To realise this vision, he enlisted the help of A. W. N. Pugin who was, arguably, a populist crusader for Gothic. His famous pro-Gothic polemic, Contrasts, found a wide readership in 1836, but it offended the leaders of the architectural profession and ensured that Pugin would spend the rest of his career as an outsider.[8]

On balance the stylistic tide was probably turning towards Gothic by 1834, but both styles still attracted diverse adherents among the architectural profession, the political establishment and the general public alike. This shows the danger in trying to align a given style with any social class or political ideology. Stylistic preference usually boils down to a subjective question of aesthetic taste, which cuts across party lines and class identities. Today, the Gothic style is in abeyance, and Trump’s Executive Order may yet be rescinded by the incoming Biden administration. Nevertheless, the stylistic debate around our public buildings looks set to continue for many years to come.

 

[1] J. Summerson, Architecture in Britain 1530-1830 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 343-44

[2] J. Mordaunt Crook and M. H. Port, The History of the King’s Works, Vol. VI, 1782-1851 (London: HMSO 1973), pp. 504-05

[3] Crook and Port, p. 506

[4] W. J. Roraburgh, “Politics and the Architectural Competition for the Houses of Parliament, 1834-1837”, Victorian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Dec., 1973), pp. 160-62

[5] Crook and Port, pp. 195-96

[6] Roraburgh, p. 157

[7] Roraburgh, pp. 157-63

[8] Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (London: Allen Lane, 2007) pp. 181-82

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