Empathetic historicism and romanticising older buildings has become an ever-common sentiment in modern Britain. In an article for the British daily The Telegraph, Stephen Bayley tackles this trend by questioning whether Victorian-era architecture is actually all worth saving? Victorian architecture, so called because it was implemented under the reign of Queen Victoria, was stylistically preoccupied by Gothic Revival — an attempt by architects and commissioners to impose a 'pure', chivalrous unifying aesthetic designed to instill a sense of civic importance and reaffirm a social hierarchy. Yet "their architecture," according to Bayley, "has an inclination to ugliness that defies explanation by the shifting tides of tastes."
It was recently reported by the BBC that repairs to the Palace of Westminster (pictured) could run up to near £6 billion (around $9 billion).
The phenomenon of survival bias has distorted our views of the Victorian period. Some of the country’s most wonderful architectural treasures are Victorian. Pugin’s Houses of Parliament, of course. So, too, Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’s St George’s Hall in Liverpool and Waterhouse’s Manchester Town Hall. These are architectural masterpieces of world-historical significance.
But the Victorians also built the skyline of our nightmares. Prisons, asylums, fever hospitals, orphanages and terrifying institutions involved with punishment, disease and death are almost always Victorian. So, too, are slums. The list says much about Victorian civic virtues, but that this virtue so often found expression in nastily ugly structures, ill-proportioned and notably unsympathetic, makes us wonder what Victorian vice might have achieved given an architectural brief.
Pictured above: King's Cross Station, London, which was comprehensively renovated by John McAslan + Partners in 2012.
Update: this story was originally inspired by an announcement from The Victorian Society of their 2015 list of the 'Top 25 Most Endangered Victorian and Edwardian Buildings in England and Wales'. You can see this list in full here.