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Going back to move forward

Ayla Lepine applauds conference analysing gothic revival worldwide

On 16 October 1834, fire tore through the Houses of Parliament. Among those who viewed the destructive spectacle were Charles Barry and AWN Pugin. The latter enthused that ‘There is nothing much to regret and a great deal to rejoice in’; the former was more gleeful still as he exclaimed ‘What a chance for an architect!’ Barry and Pugin’s creation along the Thames, which fuses uniquely Victorian practicability with intricate medievalist vigour, is an essay in historicist nationalism like no other.

Its long gestation and ambitious construction from the 1830s into the 1860s mirrored the Gothic style’s global ascension. It is impossible to conceive of the long 19th century without thinking of the Gothic Revival. We are steeped in John Ruskin, George Gilbert Scott and William Morris.

It might well be argued that without Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, however, British architectural history, and indeed international building schemes via colonial zeal, would look radically different. Speculations on style aside, there would have been far less in the way of serious debate regarding the relationship between morality, architecture, society and technology.

Sketch of Gothic Methodist Church by Henry Fraser

The strange yet perennial tendency to look back to the Middle Ages in order to imagine and indeed build a new future was the primary focus for New Directions in Gothic Revival Studies Worldwide.

Sponsored by the Pugin Society and convened by Timothy Brittain-Catlin, the conference to mark the bicentenary of Pugin’s birth in 1812 had a festal air about it as an international cohort of architects, historians and enthusiasts congregated in the Brutalism of Kent University.

Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, argued persuasively that since the 19th century design and architectural criticism have been shaped by the ‘burden of revivalism’. His lecture set the tone for over 40 papers, each of which grappled with the mutable purposes, meanings and outcomes of architects’, patrons’ and cultures’ decisions to choose Gothic.

Beyond the last visible revivalist pinnacle, there appears to be a broader groundswell of interest in historicism that might be productively harnessed to widen curiosity about ideological motivations for turning to the past beyond a concentration of effort on style and biography.

Bigger questions might be usefully raised regarding originality, reproduction and ever-present tensions between tradition and innovation. It’s notable that Alain de Botton’s School of Life, distributing thoughtful talk-tonics to the middle class masses, is turning its attention to the attractions and impossibilities of originality as a topic for discussion this autumn.

Impressive expressions of academic acumen punctuated the days’ events at Kent. Stephen Bann, Professor Emeritus at Bristol, turned to a close reading of archival material to show that Pugin’s intimate relationship with France and his teenage skill as a draughtsman are crucial pieces of the historical puzzle if we are to understand what was at stake when Pugin’s Gothic Revival polemic blasted England with Contrasts, revived metalwork, tiles and textiles alongside Gothic design, and his raged against neo-classical metropolitan schemes.

Margaret Belcher, the editor for Pugin’s wealth of letters, reminds us that correspondence is always the nuts and bolts of primary research but that these texts are refractions and fragments of much wider and more detailed histories. From his invention of the term ‘poetiful’ to his exasperation with a group of nuns who were concerned that cleaning their new stained glass might wipe off the colour, these moments − penned in a hurry − give us something more whimsical, even in the midst of hard graft.


Stephen Kite gave an introduction to Ruskin’s shadowy method of architectural observation in Italy, illustrated by the artist’s drawings of the lamp arch from the Church of San Michele, Lucca

It is heartening to see such a wealth of new thinking on how and why architects and designers initiated and maintained the Gothic turn around and beyond Pugin’s short life. Particularly notable research includes Carla Yanni’s work on the parallels between discourses on biological and architectural development, Stephen Kite’s introduction to John Ruskin’s shadowy method of architectural observation in Italy, emerging scholarship on interlaced explorations of architecture, literature and theology for a distinctly North American modern Gothic movement, and the unlikely yet provocative presence of 19th-century linen-fold panelling in rural Mongolia’s farm houses.

Thomas Coomans’ survey of Belgian Gothic Revival-style mission cathedrals in China and the Congo insisted that we must expand our architectural canon beyond the usual cast of characters if we’re truly willing to learn anything new about colonial medievalism. Indeed, Henry Fraser explained that in Barbados, Gothic buttresses and pointed windows were de rigueur as recently as the turn of the 21st century.

Far from being defunct or revived in the spirit of ironic allusion, one got the feeling that Gothic principles and treatment of materials, like the long sleep of Arthur in Avalon, never entirely expired. As revivalism maintains its hold on architectural historians and writers and historicism re-emerges in architectural debate, enquiry into the Gothic Revival as a global phenomenon continues to be propelled by Pugin’s own motto, ‘en avant’. Perhaps it is still the case that in order to move forward we must return, selectively and intelligently, to the past.


Venue: University of Kent

City: Canterbury

Dates: 13 - 14 July

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