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The Wrong Side of History

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I only learned about Victorian era architect Decimus Burton (1800–1881) a few months ago when two articles on him appeared in The Guardian online the same day. Decimus Burton was a skilled and prolific architect who, until recently, was mostly forgotten or, more to the point, never remembered. Both articles suggested this was because he persisted in designing in a neoclassic style at a time when the kind of Gothic Revival pumped out by the likes of Pugin was seen as more morally appropriate. We don’t have discussions about the moral appropriateness of architecture anymore.

I’d like to know more about his parents who named their tenth child Decimus. An affinity for classicism was in the family. Decimus’ father was a successful architect and also a property developer as was his father’s father. Decimus was raised in an affluent townhouse, a large city house, and a large country house and, at an early age, had drawing lessons from George Maddox who had worked for Sir John Soane and designed the Burton family home in Regent’s Park when he was 19.

By Sheila Madhvani, CC BY-SA 2.0, “As of March 2023, the mansion was put up for sale by its then owner, Abdullah bin Khalid Al Saud, for a reported price of £250m, making it the most expensive private residence in the UK.”

By the time he set up his own practice at the age of 21, Decimus had already met John Nash whom his father was bankrolling in return for Nash promoting Decimus’ career. Decimus’ Wikipedia entry is a gripping and fast-paced read with scene-setting sentences such as “George Greenough, a close friend of the Prince Regent, invited Humphry Davy, and Nash, to design Grove House in Regent’s Park. Greenough’s invitation to Decimus Burton was ‘virtually a family affair’, for Greenhough had dined frequently with Decimus’s parents… . Greenough and Decimus finalized their designs during numerous meetings at the opera.” The year was 1828. Here it is. Me, I think it’s a bit grotesque, but the Victorians liked their familiar with a touch of the novel.

It’s Augustus W we associate with an English Gothic Revival style as recreated in the Palace of Westminster by Charles Barry. In defiance of the facts, history wants to remember Charles Barry as an Architect of Record and Augustus W Pugin as the real designer. Burton and AW Pugin both had influential fathers whose practices they joined. Both did not want for money or work. Pugin’s Wikipedia entry is another cracking read. It’s easy to imagine some kind of Mozart-Salieri rivalry between Burton and Pugin but both had very successful careers launched by their fathers. Both had privileged upbringings. Despite Decimus’ name, he wasn’t living at the right time to be a Classicist so it was inevitable he become a Neoclassicist. Pugin’s father had a big influence on AWP becoming an advocate for the Gothic style as the only true style. Pugin converted to Catholicism at 22 and this decision both won him some clients and lost him some. Despite now being a Catholic, his 1847 visit to Italy didn’t endear him to Renaissance or Baroque architecture. By the time he was 35, Pugin was as much as NeoGoth as Burton was a Neoclassicist. Yet, it’s Pugin who is remembered more and I’m not sure why this should be. Perhaps Pugin’s fervor for Gothic Revival was more memorable than Burton’s competence.

Decimus Burton is mostly not remembered for designing the Palm House at London’s Kew Gardens. It’s not that I didn’t know about it or hadn’t seen images of it in history books but it was completed in 1848 three years before Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace with which histories of modern architecture usually began. This next image is from the website of The Decimus Burton Society that promotes the architectural legacy of this eminent Victorian architect. The arched doorway doesn’t even seem neoclassical given those other quarter curves. For such a new building type for a hitherto unknown function it’s not odd that it’s not something we immediately think of as neoclassical.

At first I thought this lack of recognition was the sign of a misfit architect but it turns out Paxton had invented the glasshouse genre with his greenhouse for The Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth in 1836. Called The Great Stove it was used for growing bananas that, along with pineapples, were all the rage. As an experimental glass building the largest in the world at the time, it’s not as elegant as the one by Burton who’d had the benefit of a true precedent to improve upon aesthetically and structurally. The structure of the conservatory at Chatsworth is a mix of iron posts and beams with laminated timber arches. A surviving engraving shows us the interior and the flat-roofed portion.

I suspect we’re made to remember Paxton’s Crystal Palace rather than his pioneering The Great Stove a.k.a Chatsworth Conservatory because of Crystal Palace’s iconic imperialistic posturing of recorded history rather than any technical or architectural merit. The Great Stove was the pioneering one even if Burton’s Kew Gardens Palm House was technically more advanced and much prettier, then what’s going on for Crystal Palace to trump both? The neoclassic theory doesn’t hold water because Palm House is not neoclassic – or at least not when compared to Crystal Palace with its barrel vaults, arches and stacked columns. Both buildings are centrally and symmetrically organized but Palm House is designed to provide a temperature-regulated environment for palm trees and this is why the attractive and functional ridge ventilators. We know that The Great Stove required twelve boilers to make bananas survive but we don’t know how Crystal Palace was made bearable for people. Photographs show no obvious ventilation devices so I expect some of the upper windows were operable.

The career of Decimus Burton didn’t suffer from this slight. He designed a large number of London’s prominent buildings. Of course there’s a larger list of London’s prominent buildings he didn’t design but it’s not a bad CV. All are a part of London and, like Neoclassical urban architecture anywhere, it’s only the monuments and the monumental we might look at twice and even then not bother to ask who’s responsible. These things are just a part of the scenery now. Good or bad no longer matters, and probably never did.

The St. Lenoards-on-Sea development is another thing that just is. It was begun by his father, James Burton about 1827. His father was a successful property developer remember. It’s very much in the neoclassic style of John Nash’s Regency Park period. James Burton died in 1837 but Decimus added more buildings and it’s perhaps this interest in property development that excludes him from history books and histories in general. It looks like a pleasant place to live. Decimus Burton must have thought so because he moved there in 1850 and lived there for the 31 years until he died.

Decimus Burton’s and his father’s connections led to many of the prestigious projects around London. Like Paxton, D Burton was a keen botanist and designer of glasshouses. And, like his father, he was not averse to property development. Decimus’ father James is not as well known as Thomas Cubitt who, rightly or wrongly, is credited with the design and development of London’s squares, but both were active at the same time building those parts of London we think of as London. James Burton, Decimus Burton and Thomas Cubitt are all footnotes in history compared to John Nash usually gets a mention as well as Augustus Welby Pugin, Decimus’s former colleague at Nash’s office. I’m not about to make a case for the architecture of one privileged and wealthy architect over another, or whether one was more attuned to which way the wind was blowing. I just want to know if the buildings have anything to say to us today. As buildings. Burton’s Palm House, I think does.

Pugin is remembered as least as much if not more than Charles Barry as the designer of the Palace of Westminster (British Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, etc.) and Barry’s choice of the Gothic Revival style showed that he and Putin were kindred spirits. The English version of Gothic known as Perpendicular Gothic was always thought of as English, largely because of Westminster Abbey which King Henry III rebuilt in its current form in 1245. Despite Gothic architecture not being an English invention, Westminster Abbey is as English as anything else. It has history and is brought into service to mark historic events. Westminster Cathedral is the Roman Catholic cathedral completed in 1903 and just up the road. It can’t compete in terms of history and its late-Victorian Romanesque style can’t compete in terms of architecture or what is thought of as appropriate. These things mattered.

Above we have Westminster Abbey on the left and Westminster Cathedral on the right. By 1900 though, Westminster Cathedral is no more Neo-Romanesque than London’s St. Pancras Station is Gothic Revival. They’re both identifiably Victorian.

Despite Pugin claiming Gothic Revival as the only morally appropriate style, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1834 because of its religious practices and definitely not because of its architecture. Pugin died in 1854 so he never got to see Westminster Cathedral that he would have disapproved of because of its Romanesque style. Institutionalized prejudices against Roman Catholics existed well into the late 1800s. Pugin’s conversion to Catholicism must have won and lost him some clients but he continued to design and undertake restoration work for both Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Either there’s a moral contradiction here or he managed to separate spiritual morality from architectural morality. This is the man who visited Italy in 1847 and found nothing to admire in Renaissance or Palladian architecture.

Everybody’s dead now but, if we say anything about anyone, it’ll be Pugin. Somewhere along the line he must have done something about which new things can be continually said in spite of, and not because of, what he thought he was doing at the time. I’ve always admired Pugin’s 1842 Alton Castle for probably the wrong reasons. It’s an old high Victorian house that has been designed with functionally separate parts, as if the house had grown up over the centuries around the chapel that remains prominent. It’s a peculiar type of highly affected planning and design to create the impression of a family having owned the land for centuries. This appealed to a certain kind of newly-rich Victorian client.

Alton Castle

What it isn’t is proto-functional expressionism. But what if it was? Amusingly, this would link Pugin with Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer and parts of buildings expressing on the outside what went on inside those parts.

A bit farther down the line it would link Pugin with the functional semi-expressionism of Frank Gehry’s 1980 Winton House that expresses functional differences even though we are given no clues as to what they are.

And a little bit further down the line we can link Shinohara’s 1986 House in Yokohama with its non-functional expressionism of parts.

We can continue in the same vein with Coop Himmelblau’s 1994 Groninger Museum, and countless other non-functional expressionist buildings since.

So now we have a direct line linking Pugin, Gropius/Meyer, Gehry, Shinohara and Coop Himmelblau. This is no different from those 1990s Hi-Tech monographs/stylebooks with their introductory essays charting the history of high-tech (a.k.a technological romanticism) and arriving at the buildings of Norman Foster and Richard via Crystal Palace, Maison de Verre and the Case Study Houses. My brief history of functional expression makes no more or less sense. Inventing histories is a game anyone can play.

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