“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed…”
– No Place Like London, Sweeny Todd
A strange thing happened towards the end of the 18th century. Actually, to say a strange thing happened is a bit of an understatement. In truth, the end of the 18th century was a period of utter turmoil. Everything was changing. New political identities were surfacing, as Germany and Italy emerged as states. Not only that, but a sense of enlightenment swept the people, and society was suddenly no longer dependent on God to understand things. People stopped waiting for the church to give them all their answers, and looked towards science, reasoning and logic to help them distinguish the truth.
It was also a time when London was probably one of the most hated places on earth. Sweeny Todd wasn’t kidding when he compared it to a great black pit; London was a great black pit. It was filthy; there was pollution and smog everywhere, and the high population density made it an incredibly undesirable city. People were unhappy, and with all the gloom and grit in the air, the architects thought something needed to change. At the time, Neo-classism had been the dominant style of architecture, and many began to believe that it was time London had a new style, to purge the city of all its dirt and negativity.
It just so happened that during this period of time, when many were beginning to ponder the idea of building a ‘New London’, the Parliament building burnt down. It needed to be rebuilt, and suddenly London experienced an identity crisis. It was one of those moments where too many things were happening at the same time, and suddenly architecture seemed to have lost its way. It was as if it had been running hyperactively for such a long time, that it had suddenly forgotten where it was going in the first place. Architects began to question what they wanted London to be, and what to choose for the new style. There were too many options, and it became difficult to pinpoint exactly which direction was best for the city to head in. Should London continue to push forwards, keeping abreast of technological developments, and implement modernism? Or is it time to take a break from all things modern, and look back at Gothic architecture? Or is it best to just stick to what it had been using all along, and continue using Neoclassic?
Ultimately, an agreement was made that one must take small steps back in order to make big steps forward. A Gothic revival occurred, and many considered it the best style to fix all of London’s problems. Part of London’s problems was the fact that many of the buildings were industrialized and reproduced. Gothic architecture solved this problem by preventing such buildings from being built, as Gothic buildings cannot be constantly reproduced. There is a sense of uniqueness to each of them; they required effort and careful thought.
While many agreed that Gothic was the way to go, there were architects who disagreed, and insisted on moving towards other directions. The World Expo loomed, and people began to panic. There was no longer a proper way to maintain order in design. While you could say that London’s main style is Gothic architecture, it was impossible to control what people liked, and people liked a lot of things. There was no longer any way to govern the people, or to figure out what the correct style was.
Architect Owen Jones tried to fix the problem by combining all the different styles together. He took the different directions people were taking, and tried to merge them into one direction through the use of colours and materials. Jones attempted to search for a common language, and tried to create underlying rules that could apply to every single style. He came to the conclusion that everyone in London could create whatever style they wanted, but the style had to follow certain rules. These rules generally encompassed decisions on colour and abstraction (there was to be no representation of materials). Nature – something many felt was severely lacking in the city life – became one of the main constraints of architecture. It provided a basic guiding principle on distinguishing between all the varying styles. Nature became the language of British architecture.
Jones wrote a book to document all his explorations on figuring out London’s style. The book was huge, and consisted of a series of paintings that showed people dressed in medieval clothes. The subjects of the paintings mostly gazed away; an intentional decision made to portray the way many modern citizens were constantly yearning for escape. Due to the fact that the book was so large compared to all other books, it required its own podium, and people had to stand around it and read together. It’s rather similar to the dictionary in my downtown library, except you don’t see many people crowding around to read that. Jones’s book managed to accomplish something that architecture had failed to do for the past few years in London; it managed to spark unity. People came together to appreciate handcraft, a phenomenon that was extremely rare in a world where everything was machine-made.
From there, architecture makes a turn back to Louis Sullivan, and his motto “form follows function”. It has, in a way, come a full circle. Yet the circle will never be complete, because it will keep on growing.