As we approach a General Election, and at a time when we are in the throes of detaching the United Kingdom from the European Union, we may be forgiven for thinking more than usual about what makes the national character. And as this column is about architecture, we may, perhaps, consider how architecture expresses our essential Britishness.
Yet, just as with British music, it’s hard to pin down how Britain expresses itself through its buildings. We can all recognise Britain’s iconic buildings, of course – Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, for example, will be recognised as symbols of Britain around the world. But they are not essentially buildings in a recognisably British style. The parliament buildings in, say, Ottawa or Budapest are just as Gothic as the Palace of Westminster; the royal palaces in Madrid or Copenhagen are just as Classical as Buckingham Palace.
In fact, the more we look into the matter, the less Britain has of its own native architecture. That’s not to say that we have no distinctive regional styles: the black-and-white timbered houses of Herefordshire, the cob cottages of Devon, the slate buildings of Cumbria, the reed-thatched barns of East Anglia and the tower houses of Scotland are all recognisable as typical of their own areas. But these are distinctions of building material rather than of national character. And they are nearly all small-scale buildings.
If we were to go back to the time of St Wilfrid, we should find that the houses of Ripon – the homes of the ordinary people, and of the monks, too – were very simple and made of local materials. But Wilfrid’s great church was something different – a stone edifice in what we’d now call the Saxon style. But the Saxon style wasn’t a native British style – it was influenced by the buildings of ancient Rome, with its round arches and columns.
The same is true of the next of the ‘periods’ of architecture that architectural historians like to use to provide a neat categorisation of the styles. In Britain we talk of ‘Norman’ architecture; castles and cathedrals are the typical surviving structures of the 11th and 12th centuries, and we can easily recognise them by their massive columns (think Durham Cathedral’s nave) and round arches – two of the four in the crossing of Ripon Cathedral provide a good example.
Again, this is not British; the same style is found throughout Europe, from Denmark to Sicily. Our parochial term ‘Norman’ is known in most of Europe as ‘Romanesque’ – linking it back again to the architecture of ancient Rome. In Germany it is more simply known as the ‘Rundbogenstil’ – the round-arched style.
What came next? The Early English style – surely that is native! Alas, no. The style of the Ripon Cathedral’s west front, with its rows of tall, thin ‘lancet’ windows can be found elsewhere, too; the name was coined by the architect Thomas Rickman as part of his rather insular attempt to categorise architecture. But go to the other end of the cathedral – to the east window, and we do find something distinctively English.
The window is in the Geometrical Decorated style (there’s a similar east window in Carlisle Cathedral). This style, looking as if it was worked out by an architect doodling with a pair of compasses, appears nowhere other than England at the time (from about 1280 onwards); it soon became freer, with sinuous curves – the west window of York Minster is a good example.
And after Decorated, we get another British style – Perpendicular. This developed in the late 14th century – some say that it was influenced by the ravages of the Black Death plague, as a new time of austerity demanded simpler architecture. This style can be seen in the aisle windows of Ripon Cathedral, where the stone mullions rise straight to the top of the arches, with minimal decoration at the window heads. But Perpendicular also produced another English speciality, the fan vault, seen at its most perfect in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.
After this flowering of British ingenuity, the country again succumbed to waves of foreign influence. At about the time of the Tudors, in came Renaissance taste, with elaborately-decorated buildings showing off their Classical allusions in carving and painting. The taste filtered down from the aristocracy to the middle classes, so that even the houses of merchants would display some of the finery seen on continental buildings.
And after the Renaissance, a return to Classicism in Britain – first, with Inigo Jones, then (after the disruption of Cromwell’s Commonwealth) with architects like Wren, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, designing in the Baroque style of Italy and France. After them the purer Classicism of the Palladian movement and, for a short time, both Greek and Egyptian revivals.
This takes us neatly into the Victorian period, the age of revivals. Any style of the past could be copied, as long as it was done with conviction. There were some – headed by Augustus Pugin – who argued that Gothic was the true British (or more accurately, the English) style. In many ways he was right, but he said it was the only Christian style, too, which antagonised many, so Gothic never became the dominant style, except for churches.
There was one 19th-century British contribution to architecture – the unbroken rows of terraced houses often found in industrial areas. Into the 20th century, though, Britain developed something else of its own. This was the semi. Developed from the designs for smaller houses like those by Richard Norman Shaw and Charles Voysey, the semi, with its porch and bay windows, soon became a typical feature of the suburbs.
Since then, there has really been no architectural innovation that we could call British; architects are now generally building in an international style. How will matters go after we have cut our ties with Europe? We can only wait and see.