Urbanities

David Watkin
An Eloquent Sermon in Stone
Summer 1998

Architecture is more than mere engineering, aiming not just to make buildings stand up but to make them speak—and, at its best, to make them speak eloquently of profound matters. No public building exemplifies that power better than Sir Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament, whose architecture delivers virtually a sermon in stone to the British nation about its deepest values, its ancient culture, and the high standards to which it holds its governors. Barry and his extraordinary young coadjutor, Augustus Welby Pugin, deliberately conceived the New Palace of Westminster, as it is properly called, as a place where history and national myth would intertwine, inspire, and educate. Today, almost a century and a half after it first opened, the vast building is universally popular as a symbol of the strength and dignity of the nation, its famous chimes of Big Ben more successful than the national anthem at conveying a sense of identity to most of Her Majesty's subjects. This is a language that modern architecture, with its customary incivility and blankness, desperately needs to re-learn.

The New Palace's builders well understood what they were doing and recognized that it was important enough to justify the spending of money on a giant scale, more than had ever been spent on a building in England hitherto. Their first decision, following the spectacular destruction by fire of the old Palace of Westminster on the night of October 16, 1834, sounded the keynote of the project's effort to educate and moralize: like its Gothic predecessor, the new building would also be "adapted to the Gothic origin and time-worn buttresses of our constitution from a time when classic architecture was unknown in this country." Its decorative paintings and sculpture would celebrate the nineteenth-century belief that England had reconciled the differences between Catholics and Protestants, between Roundheads and Cavaliers, monarchy and democracy, peers and people, to produce

A land of settled government...
Where Freedom slowly broadens down
From precedent to precedent.

Contemporaries saw the Houses of Parliament as "the initial letter in the chapter of our architectural history which the age has been composing." It is, indeed, the first great Victorian building and in many ways the first great modern building. As architecture, and as a monument to the nation's aspirations and ideals, who can say that it has not triumphantly achieved its objectives?

Its promoters recognized that the new building would have a lot of history to reflect. From the eleventh century, the Palace of Westminster had been the principal residence of the medieval kings. By the thirteenth century, the taste for a decorative scheme freighted with ideals that characterized Barry's building six centuries later had already begun to form. Henry III, who had built Westminster Abbey, had a room known as the Painted Chamber decorated with hortatory scenes of the Coronation of King (and Saint) Edward the Confessor and of the Triumphant Virtues. Later in the century, Edward III, the crusader king, added an immense cycle of Old Testament scenes celebrating Judas Maccabaeus as an heroic commander, who, like Joshua or King David, set a biblical example of the knightly behavior that should mark a leader.

It was at the Palace of Westminster that the earliest recorded parliaments, simply the king meeting his counselors, took place. By the fourteenth century, the House of Commons, born when Simon de Montfort summoned the first shire representatives in 1265, had become a distinct and separate assembly, its members meeting in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, just west of the palace. But in 1547, long after King Henry VIII had moved the royal residence to Whitehall Palace, it moved into the palace itself, into St. Stephen's Chapel, whose seats facing each other, originally designed for priests singing antiphonally, encouraged the growth of a two-party parliament of government and opposition. The Lords met first in the Painted Chamber and eventually in the White Hall, which remained their home until the fire of 1834. Nearby, in Westminster Hall, almost the only part of the medieval palace that survives today, the three courts of King's Bench, Common Pleas, and Chancery sat until 1825.

A century before the great fire, members of Parliament began to itch to modernize their by then ancient, inconvenient, and decaying quarters, and three great architects, William Kent, Sir John Soane, and James Wyatt produced ambitious plans, none of them ever built. Though Kent and Soane favored classical styles, during the Napoleonic Wars a consensus formed that the Gothic, or "Saxon," style was the appropriate national style, in harmony with the liberty that was the basis of England's constitution and the rights of freeborn Englishmen. Antiquarian John Carter promoted Gothic as a bulwark against Napoleon and revolution, claiming that "The admiration of Roman and Grecian styles has turned the genius of Englishmen from their national architecture to toil in an inglorious and servile pursuit to imitate a foreign manner." He went on to explain that, "in a day like the present, when the infernal dispensers of 'liberty and equality' are spreading their destroying power on so many Realms ...it behooves every Englishman to come forward in the general cause, to protect his King and Country"—which meant building in their nation's ancient Gothic style.

The destruction of the Palace of Westminster provided the country with its greatest architectural opportunity since the Great Fire of London in 1664. The committee that William IV appointed to consider the replacement of the old buildings announced in June 1835 that it would choose the architect by "general competition" and that "the style of the buildings [would] be either Gothic or Elizabethan." Ninety-seven architects submitted entries, accompanied by some 1,400 drawings. In January 1836 the committee announced that the winner was Charles Barry.

At the time of the competition, Barry was 40 and had designed Gothic churches and schools, as well as the Travellers' Club, built in the Italianate classical style he would initially have preferred to use for the Palace of Westminster. Born into modest middle-class circumstances as the son of a stationer in Westminster, he had set his sights high, professionally and socially. And he achieved his ambitions. He used a small legacy from his father to travel on the Continent and study architecture in Europe and the Near East between 1817 and 1820, broadening his knowledge and outlook and lifting himself above the common run of architects of his day. Once he became successful, he moved in the world of high Whig politics, particularly in the celebrated circle of Lord Holland.

His son's biography of him, painting him as a conventional eminent Victorian, does not bring him alive: we learn that he was a placid family man with very few outside friends, that he disliked all public display and rose to work at four or five in the morning. "The whole remembrance of his life is one of work, simplicity, geniality, and vigor, guided by a conscientious devotion to duty," his son recalls. The one attractive trait his son mentions is that "foreigners especially made their way with him, for he always liked the greater freedom and liveliness of Continental manners and character." His devotion to duty took its toll on his health, leading to illness and an early death, at the age of 60.

Augustus Pugin, whom Barry had the wit to hire in order to clothe with decorative and narrative ornament the exterior and interiors of the building that he had designed, could not have been more different in outlook and temperament from his conventional boss. Mercurial, passionate, and eccentric, Pugin was a febrile genius who had three wives in 12 years and was dead by the time he was 40. Only 22 at the time of the fire in 1834, in which year he became a Roman Catholic convert, Pugin was a fanatic about Gothic architecture, which he believed expressed revealed truth. He regarded bad design as synonymous with heresy, and he made no distinction between work and religion, art and love. He believed that buildings should be designed so that the work craftsmen would do in erecting them would be enriching and fulfilling, and, partly in reaction to the mechanized world introduced by the Industrial Revolution, he and his more celebrated disciple, John Ruskin, developed the idea that such honest craftsmanship was the soundest basis on which to organize all of society. In this vein, the leading architectural journal, The Builder, hoped that the work of erecting the Houses of Parliament would be "made morally influential for the advancement of the working builders, and through them for general building art."

It is much to Barry's credit that, despite the inevitable public criticism of Pugin in Protestant England for his polemical Catholicism, Barry insisted on employing him on the grounds of his outstanding artistic merit. It was, indeed, Pugin's superb draftsmanship that had particularly impressed the lay judges in the competition in 1835. Working day and night on his designs during the more than seven years that he worked for Barry, Pugin employed no clerk, exclaiming, "I should kill him in a week." Though boasting that, "If I had not the spirit of a lion with three tails I should never get over my difficulties," Pugin suffered a nervous breakdown in February 1852, followed by incarceration in the London mental asylum, Bethlehem Hospital, and premature death in September 1852.

Barry approached his task, he said, with one "great idea" in mind—that the building should be "a sculptured memorial of our national history," which would "instruct people in their history, elevate taste, improve craftsmanship, sculpture, painting, and stained glass." His first problem in coming up with a design for a Gothic palace was that, though numerous medieval Gothic churches survived in England, only fragments of Gothic palaces remained. After journeying to Belgium and the Netherlands to study the secular Gothic style of the medieval town halls at Brussels and Louvain, he realized that he could adapt their tall, pitched roofs to enliven the long frontages of the building that was taking shape in his mind. He decided to clothe those facades with paneled and reticulated ornament inspired by the Perpendicular Gothic of Henry VII's Chapel at the adjacent Westminster Abbey. The small compartments of decoration give so vast a building a human scale. The river front he decided to adorn with statues of kings and queens and a series of royal coats of arms beginning with William the Conqueror. These were intended to express the legitimacy of leadership, its continuity in an unbroken tradition from earliest times to the present day.

As the building rose, Barry enlivened its skyline by three asymmetrically placed towers, including the universally familiar Big Ben. The Victoria Tower, 336 feet high, was the highest and largest square tower in the world, taller than the first American skyscrapers. It was totally modern in construction, with eight iron columns of between 8 and 14 inches in diameter supporting eight stone floors. The internal roof-framing at the palace is also of iron, as are the dormer windows, while the roofs are covered with interlocking cast-iron plates. Barry was forced against his wishes to add a third tower for the purposes of ventilation, an early example of architecture being influenced by mechanical services, though Barry gave it the form of a spire. Elsewhere, the building was not structurally innovative, being largely of load-bearing masonry bonded with iron cramps. What was new was the scale.

Expectations of what members of both houses of Parliament wanted from their new building had been heightened by the rise of London clubs, with their smoking rooms, dining rooms, and libraries; and their chosen architect, Barry, had just completed a famous Pall Mall club, the Travellers' Club (1830-32), and he was to build, next door, the most ambitious of all Victorian clubhouses, the Reform Club (1838-41). Barry provided all the desired amenities on the seven-acre site, with a river front nearly 800 feet long, in a building containing 1,180 rooms, 126 staircases, and more than two miles of corridors.

Work on the embankment in the river began in 1837, the foundation stone of the main building was laid by Mrs. Barry in April 1840, 1,400 workmen were employed at the height of construction in 1848, and the New Palace opened in 1852. However, work on the interior decoration and furnishings continued for a decade after Barry's sudden death in May 1860.

In 1840, artists, invited to submit their proposals for decorative paintings based on British history or subjects from Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton, sent in 634 drawings in charcoal or chalk. Exhibited in Westminster Hall, they drew 1,800 visitors a day, including the Queen. The final decision fell to a Royal Commission on the Fine Arts, appointed in 1841,with the Prince Consort, Prince Albert, as chairman. Barry, who had little admiration for the Prince, wasn't included. But the Prince was in harmony with Barry's impulse to educate and elevate: influenced by the German Romantic painters, he believed that absolute laws governed both art and conduct, and they were the same laws, for the fine arts subserved morality. In this spirit, the commission's aim at Westminster was to use history to provide a series of moral lessons, expressing the values underlying the Crown, the Lords, and the Commons, each of which had its distinct section of the palace. The result was one of the most ambitious of the rare British attempts at state patronage of painting.

Surely the most striking and effective embodiment of the building's moralizing spirit is the Robing Room, the inner sanctum of the royal suite, embellished between 1849 and 1863 with representations of the legends of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table by William Dyce. In this room, practically all the resources of British culture—history, myth, literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture—come together to speak in one voice a clear and moving message. The murals depict an ideal of leadership by a consummately civilized and noble king and aristocracy, perfect exemplars of such virtues as courtesy and chivalry. The feeling that the sixth-century Arthur was the first British national hero went back as far as 1344, when Edward III, seeking to form an order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, established a Round Table along Arthurian lines, with the same number of knights, 300. And Arthur fired the imagination of nineteenth-century poets from Walter Scott to Tennyson.

After nearly 14 years' work on the frescoes, Dyce died in 1864, having completed five of the depictions of the seven chivalric virtues—mercy, religion, and so on—each identified in captions in Gothic script below the painting. (The painter had replied to complaints about the slow progress of his murals by explaining that Arthurian subjects necessitated the time-consuming representation of "a great quantity of chain mail.") Dyce drew his scenes from the great fifteenth-century Arthurian epic Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, and he drew as well from Malory the idea that true nobility rests on a code of conduct that must always trump mere self-interest.

Take the scene depicting generosity, which dramatizes one of the climactic moments of the Morte d'Arthur. As the company of the Round Table is disintegrating because of internal conflict—and Sir Launcelot has been driven against his will into a war against his lord, King Arthur—Launcelot's ally, Sir Bors, knocks Arthur off his horse in battle, jumps down with his sword drawn, and asks Launcelot, "Shall I make an end of this war?" by killing the king. Not so fast, Launcelot replies: "I will never see that most noble king that made me knight neither slain ne shamed." As he helps Arthur back upon his horse and begs him to end the war, tears come to the king's eyes at "the great courtesy that was in Sir Launcelot more than in any other man." No matter what the personal consequences, Malory dramatizes, nobility requires you to maintain your loyalty to your king.

As Dyce depicts them, the knightly virtues have a distinctly Victorian flavor, despite their medieval dress, and the paintings have very much the air of anchoring modern ideals in ancient authority. The larger lesson of this painting, beyond an appropriate reverence for the Crown and an insistence that leadership must be accompanied by virtue, is that national loyalty has a long and glorious past in Britain, rooted like so many other virtues in the nation's history, literature, and culture. And on a less exalted plane, the moral qualities Dyce holds out in the Robing Room for admiration and imitation by the monarchy and aristocracy of Victorian England are akin to those that, inspired by the example set by Rugby's great headmaster, Thomas Arnold, were preached in all the public schools from the most modest up to Eton and Harrow. Victorian gentlemen had learned in their schools that one did not hit a man when he was down. They took this code of gentlemanly honor out to the Empire and eventually to the trenches in the First World War. In a similar way, the scene depicting hospitality—it shows the admission to the Fellowship of the Round Table of Sir Tristram, "one of the best knights and the gentlest of the world"—must have looked to Victorian eyes like a medieval version of dinner in an officers' mess. Between 1867 and 1870, H.H. Armistead filled in the small compartments under Dyce's paintings with 18 lively, carved wooden bas-reliefs depicting other episodes in the Arthurian story.

The Robing Room's only practical function is as a dressing room for the Queen when she comes to Westminster Palace for the annual opening of Parliament. As she proceeds toward the House of Lords to give her speech, she first passes through the Royal Gallery, which, at 110 by 45 by 45 feet, is even larger than the House of Lords itself. Here frescoes celebrate British military history from the first-century warrior-queen Boadicea to Wellington. Since the Napoleonic Wars could be seen as the modern equivalent of Agincourt, the Crusades, or Arthur's last battle, the cycle is dominated by The Death of Nelson and The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher after Waterloo, both 45 feet long. Painted by Daniel Maclise, a close friend of Charles Dickens's, these lively figure compositions with bodies in motion are a graphic account of stress and emotion and a reminder of the military might and activist foreign policy on which Britain's then—vast empire rested. Dominating the painting of Wellington and Blucher is the Iron Duke on horseback. Maclise interprets him as the epitome of the modern chivalrous hero—not triumphalist, but grave and calm, honoring the dead and suffering soldiers all around him.

The next ceremonial room, the much smaller Prince's Chamber, is the last room before the House of Lords itself. It celebrates the glories of the Tudor monarchy, which had so spectacularly revived the nation's fortunes after the Wars of the Roses. The middle compartments of the walls display an attractive series of 28 Tudor royal family portraits. Below them are 12 bronze bas-reliefs by William Theed of Tudor history, including Elizabeth I knighting Sir Francis Drake and (inevitably) Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his coat as a carpet before her. This brilliant age of poetry and prosperity, of drama and discovery, the high noon of chivalry and adventure, was here convincingly presented to the Victorians as a precursor of their own ebullient age.

Lest anyone miss the implication, John Gibson's monumental marble statue of Queen Victoria of 1856, crowned and seated on the throne, dominates the Prince's Chamber. In this extraordinary image of almost divine self-assurance, Protestant England seemed to draw on the iconography of Roman Catholicism, for it resembles some great statue of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. Flanked by two freestanding female figures of Justice and Mercy—more virtues, this time seven feet high—the queen holds the scepter and a laurel crown, indicating that she not only governs her subjects but also rewards them for intellect and valor. Lions behind the throne, symbolizing British strength and courage, are accompanied by sea horses, denoting British dominion of the seas.

On the pedestal are bas-reliefs depicting commerce, science, and technical progress, with a steam engine, telegraph wire, "and other useful objects." The use of public money in this whole elaborate decorative program must have seemed triumphantly justified in this image of the energy and confidence of early Victorian England. Here, a world power was given legitimacy by its ancient historical and mythical traditions embodied in this representation of the monarch.

In the House of Lords itself, the decoration speaks to Parliament in a by now familiar idiom. Frescoes of the Spirit of Chivalry, painted by Maclise, extol the virtues of justice, religion, and chivalry. Over the throne on the south wall are historical exemplifications of these three virtues: the boy Henry V acknowledging the authority of Chief Justice Gascoign represents justice; the baptism of King Ethelbert by St. Augustine represents religion; and Edward III represents the spirit of chivalry by founding the Order of the Garter and making his son, the Black Prince, a knight. Stationed high upon the wall and wearing chain mail are 18 bronze statues in canopied niches of the barons who forced King John to assent to the Magna Carta in 1215. The nineteenth-century observer would understand the suggestion that Britain's modern constitutional monarchy had ancient roots. Pugin claimed to have produced 2,000 drawings for details in this room alone.

The House of Commons was smaller and less colorful than the House of Lords, lacking frescoes or sculpture. Destroyed by enemy action in 1941, it was rebuilt after the war in simplified form by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of the superb Gothic cathedral at Liverpool. At Churchill's insistence, it recalled the plan and form of Barry's chamber and, in particular, its small size, even though this means that not all members can be accommodated at once. Churchill was, however, determined to retain its intimate, club-like atmosphere.

The influential modernist architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, typically, lamented that it was not rebuilt in "the twentieth-century style." One of the most disastrous myths of the twentieth century was that new technology meant that traditional forms of architecture and design were dead, irrelevant, and unusable. Barry's building shows how nonsensical that inhuman view is, for, despite its Gothic detail, it has an instantly recognizable identity as a nineteenth-century monument. Not only did Barry effortlessly incorporate the most advanced technology in construction and servicing, but Pugin showed how Gothic design was also compatible with totally modern unmedieval objects, such as thermometer cases, calendar cards, umbrella stands, iron hat and coat stands, dispatch boxes, letter boxes, wooden notice stands, bell pulls, as well as plates and hinges for swing doors. The building also shows the modesty of Barry, who was ordered to build in a style not of his choice or desire. Leading modern architects are prima donnas who tolerate no such constraints.

At the New Palace of Westminster, Barry and Pugin may be said to have given their lives to ensure that stones, paintings, and carvings would themselves have life, so as to speak to future generations. Through the blankness and materialism of modern architecture and culture, mankind has become deaf to this kind of language, so that it now has to be decoded. Leon Krier has written a devastating attack on modernism in his new book, Architecture: Choice or Fate. Krier asks whether there is a connection between the common perception of contemporary institutions such as NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union and the crass, utilitarian style of their buildings, which seem so deliberately lacking in symbolic expression. The dignity, authority, and self- respect of institutions such as those housed in St. Peter's, the Capitol, and the Houses of Parliament are, by contrast, made visible in the majesty of their architecture.

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