GOTHIC REVIVAL ARCHITECTURE


GOTHIC REVIVAL ARCHITECTURE
   Gothic Revival architecture can be seen as part of the general trend of Romanticism that characterized mid-18th- through mid-19th-century European culture, and while it reached its high point from 1830 to 1870, a continued interest in the Gothic style appeared through the early 20th century. Revivalist movements were not new in architecture, but prior to this time, they had mainly centered on the revival of classicism, which by now had gone through at least four major renewals since antiquity. The Gothic Revival originated in England and was fueled by a more romanticized, nostalgic view of the Middle Ages. Romanticists favored the secular narratives of the feudal era with courtly romance and bravery in battle as the two central themes of interest, hence the widespread renewal of interest in the stories of Tristan and Iseult, Roland, and Arthur. The writings of Alfred Tennyson illustrate this type of Romanticism. However, in the Gothic novel of the 19th century, the sentiments that came out of these narratives are more sublime. That is, they escalate into more powerful emotions of passionate love, fear, and horror, very often set within the picturesque surroundings of the isolated, forgotten medieval castle or the haunted rural baronial estate. Neo-Gothic narratives include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from 1818 and Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher from 1843.
   Horace Walpole is credited with having written the first Gothic novel, titled the Castle at Otranto, published anonymously in London in 1764, and it is his country home, Strawberry Hill, that provides us with one of the earliest examples of the Gothic Revival style in architecture. Having decided to renovate his rural home in Twickenham, England, in 1749, Walpole directed a 30-year transformation of his house based on careful studies of medieval buildings in England that had been renovated. His house features crenellations and projecting battlements, towers and round turrets, bifurcated windows with pointed arches and decorative tracery. A fusion of the fortified features of a feudal-era castle with the more open architectural elements found in a medieval church appears here. Inside the house, rooms featured different medieval themes. Walpole studied illustrated books of tracery patterns and window designs to better understand medieval stylistic features, then adapted them for use in a more fanciful way. For example, in his library, he borrowed features from the then-destroyed old Saint Paul's Cathedral in London, which had been documented in picture books, and his fireplace is modeled on a medieval wall tomb. The ceiling blends real and imaginary family coats-of-arms, which adds to the more fantastic character of the Gothic Revival style. At Horace Walpole's death the house passed through many owners with colorful lives, both friends and relatives, yet none lived there very long, thus perpetuating the still-current idea that the house is haunted. Finally, the property was sold to the public in the mid-19th century, and although much of the original land was gradually sold off, the house remains a museum today.
   By the early 19th century, the Gothic Revival style came to be seen as the national style of England, one that was historically native to northern Europe and therefore more appropriate to English architecture than the equally popular Neo-Classical style, which derived from Ancient Greece and Rome. As it gained popularity, the Gothic Revival style developed its own philosophical underpinnings, which gave it greater social relevance than it had held in 18th-century England. Thus, one of the best-known examples of the Gothic Revival style is the Houses of Parliament, built in London in 1836-1880 by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin after fire destroyed Parliament's earlier Westminster Palace in 1834. The predetermined Gothic style matched the Gothic style of Westminster Abbey, located to the west of the new Parliament buildings, which symbolizes the history of English monarchic power. Barry devised a symmetrical plan to suggest a balance of that power with democratic rule, while Pugin was responsible for the Gothic decorative detailing on the Parliament buildings. Pugin had previously written about this architectural style, arguing that medieval architecture was morally superior to and more spiritually uplifting than the industrial, mechanized urban society in which he lived. This more philosophical interpretation of the Gothic style was further developed by John Ruskin in his books The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1853), in which he romanticized the noble role of the medieval stonecutter.
   George Gilbert Scott continued the Gothic Revival style in England with his construction of the monumentally sized Saint Pancras Railway Station in London in 1865 and with a proliferation of churches, chapels, and colleges constructed across England during the Victorian age. Perhaps the most famous example of the Gothic Revival style in England is Tower Bridge in London, built by John Wolfe-Barry and Horace Jones in 1886-1894. Prior to the construction of Tower Bridge, only London Bridge and newer bridges built to its west served downtown London. Tower Bridge responded to the need for an eastern bridge that could support the busy port along the Thames River. It was constructed as a movable bridge using hydraulics to raise and lower its bascules. The bridge therefore needed a massive framing to support this movable road; not only did the thick Gothic tower structures flanking the center function to enclose the mechanics and to support the road, but the style was also visually suited to the prevailing Gothic of old London.
   The Gothic Revival found favor in the United States as well, where it is used most frequently in the construction of Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches. Richard Upjohn's Trinity Church in New York City (1839-1846) is typical of this style. Born in England, Upjohn settled in the United States and is credited with introducing the Gothic Revival style there. College campus buildings are also frequently constructed in the Gothic Revival style, and are meant to provide a visual reminder not only of the Late Medieval origins of the university institution, but also of the high level of quality represented by the famous English colleges of Oxford and Cambridge as well as the Ivy League colleges found along the East Coast of the United States.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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