Friday, September 23, 2005

A History of British Architecture

The Middle Ages - 1066 and all that
Architecture is about evolution, not revolution. It used to be thought that once the Romans pulled out of Britain in the fifth century, their elegant villas, carefully-planned towns and engineering marvels like Hadrian's Wall simply fell into decay as British culture was plunged into the Dark Ages. It took the Norman Conquest of 1066 to bring back the light, and the Gothic cathedral-builders of the Middle Ages played an important part in the revival of British culture.
'The great cathedrals and parish churches that lifted up their towers to heaven were acts of devotion in stone...'
However, the truth is not as simple as that. Romano-British culture - and that included architecture along with language, religion, political organisation and the arts - survived long after the Roman withdrawal. And although the Anglo-Saxons had a sophisticated building style of their own, little survives to bear witness to their achievements as the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon buildings were made of wood.
Even so, the period between the Norman landing at Pevensey in 1066 and the day in 1485 when Richard III lost his horse and his head at Bosworth, ushering in the Tudors and the Early Modern period, marks a rare flowering of British building. And it is all the more remarkable because the underlying ethos of medieval architecture was 'fitness for purpose'. The great cathedrals and parish churches that lifted up their towers to heaven were not only acts of devotion in stone; they were also fiercely functional buildings. Castles served their particular purpose and their battlements and turrets were for use rather than ornament. The rambling manor houses of the later Middle Ages, however, were primarily homes, their owners achieving respect and maintaining status by their hospitality and good lordship rather than the grandeur of their buildings.
Fitness for purpose also characterised the homes of the poorer classes. Such people didn't matter very much to the ruling elite and so neither did their houses. These were dark, primitive structures of one or two rooms, usually with cBuildings of the Middle Ages
White Tower, at the heart of the Tower of London, was begun by Bishop Gundulf in 1078 on the orders of William the Conqueror. The structure was completed in 1097, providing a colonial stronghold and a powerful symbol of Norman domination.
Durham Cathedral was begun by Bishop William de St Carilef in 1093 and completed about 1175. The choir was extended in the Gothic style between 1242 and 1280. Muscular pillars and round-headed arches make Durham one of the most imposing Norman buildings in England.
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, was probably begun in the 12th century, but was remodelled and adapted at various times right through to the 16th century. It was then carefully restored in the early 20th century. Haddon shows the quality which characterises the great medieval house, in which function dictates form.
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, spans the period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Tudors. Its foundation stone was laid in 1446 by Henry VI and the structure, with its lacy perpendicular fan-vaulting, was completed by 1515 during the reign of Henry VIII. The windows were installed in 1546-7.rude timbeThe Tudors - stately and curious workmanship
In a sense, the buildings of the 16th century were also governed by fitness for purpose - only now, the purpose was very different. In domestic architecture, in particular, buildings were used to display status and wealth, as William Harrison noted in his Description of England (1577):
Each one desireth to set his house aloft on the hill, to be seen afar off, and cast forth his beams of stately and curious workmanship into every quarter of the country.
This stately and curious workmanship showed itself in various ways. A greater sense of security led to more outward-looking buildings, as opposed to the medieval arrangement where the need for defence created houses that faced inward onto a courtyard or series of courtyards. This allowed for much more in the way of exterior ornament. The rooms themselves tended to be bigger and lighter - as an expensive commodity, the use of great expanses of glass was in itself a statement of wealth. There was also a general move towards balanced and symmetrical exteriors with central entrances.
'In spite of this building boom the Renaissance was generally slow to arrive in England...'
In addition there was progress towards more stable and sophisticated houses for those lower down the social scale. Stone, and later brick, began to replace timber as the standard building material for the homes of farmers, tradespeople and artisans. To quote Harrison again:
Every man almost is a builder, and he that hath bought any small parcel of ground, be it never so little, will not be quiet till he have pulled down the old house (if any were there standing) and set up a new after his own device.
In spite of this building boom the Renaissance was generally slow to arrive in England, largely because Elizabeth's troublesome relations with Catholic Europe made the free exchange of ideas difficult. Craftsmen and pattern-books did come over from the Protestant Low Countries, but by and large our relative isolation from the European cultural mainstream led to a national style which was a bizarre though attractive mixture of Gothic and Tudor Palaces and Houses
Hampton Court Palace (1515 onwards). The great house that Cardinal Wolsey began and then gave to Henry VIII in 1525, in a desperate attempt to stay in the King's favour, has undergone many changes since the 16th century. Christopher Wren rebuilt the south and east ranges for William and Mary between 1689 and 1694, and the Palace contains some remarkable Tudor work, notably Henry VIII's hammer-beamed Great Hall.
Longleat House, Wiltshire, which was completed in 1580, exemplifies the confidence of Tudor craftsmen in a society that was more stable than that of their medieval ancestors. It looks outwards rather than in on itself, whilst classical detailing such as the pilasters that flank the expanses of glass, and the roundels carved with busts of Roman emperors, show that Renaissance ideas were creeping slowly into Britain during the mid 16th century.
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (1591-97). This is the archetypal late-Elizabethan house: tall, compact and beautiful. It was designed, probably by Robert Smythson, for Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury who was better known as Bess of Hardwick. Her descendants, the Dukes of Devonshire, made Chatsworth their principal seat, and left Hardwick more or less unscathed. A remarkable survival.
Whilst Elizabethan houses in England concentrated on the conspicuous display of wealth, Scotland saw the building of castles and fortified houses continue well into the seventeenth century. In fact, fortification became a style in its own right, and the turrets and strongly vertical emphases of Scottish Baronial houses mark one of Scotland's most distinctive contributions to British architectureclassical styles.r frames, low walls and thatched roofs. They weren't built to last. And they didn't.


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