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Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)

Video transcript

[Music] we're looking across the river thames at the houses of parliament in London it's tempting to think that this was built hundreds of years earlier than it was it was built in the early Victorian era there was a great fire in 1834 and it burned down the old palace that had been here and there was a competition that was held for designs for a new building the competition had the stipulation that the new structure had to be designed in one of two historical styles it had to either be gothic or it could be Elizabethan that is from the time of Shakespeare there was something like 97 entries to the competition and the vast majority were in the Gothic style so that's why this looks like it was built hundreds of years before it's in the style of the Gothic which dates from the late medieval period the competition was won by an architect whose name is Charles berry with the assistance of Augustus Pugh j'en who was responsible for the interior designs as well as the stained glass and some of the exterior decorative forms pujan was known for his love of the Gothic for his belief in the Gothic as the right and true immoral style of architecture and also style of architecture that was associated with Englishness this is why the competition stipulated it needed to be Elizabethan or gothic we think about the Gothic as French but in England in the 19th century the Gothic was English I think it raises the issue why was the 19th century so fascinated with reviving older architectural styles what was that about and of course the reason has to do with industrialization with a new modern world in the way that that unsettled people well the modern era seemed ugly period of factories and steam engines it seemed like there was nothing beautiful about it when they looked at the past they saw the beautiful architecture of the Gothic period they looked at the classical pass and they saw beauty but when they looked around them they didn't see beauty they saw the industrial world this was now a period when you could buy cheaply made Goods for the first time and the old systems of handicraft had been replaced people had moved from the country where people had learned through apprenticeship traditions of making things but now things were being produced by factories and it was an unsettling period so I think it's natural that people looked back to historical styles especially a building like this which was meant to be the seat of government and is still today the seat of government this is where the House of Commons meets this is where the House of Lords meets this building represents the parliamentary system so you're right it had to really speak of tradition but it really speaks of a kind of falsehood this is not the Gothic it is a modern invention in fact the building itself uses quite a number of modern innovations in its constructive techniques it's an enormous building on a concrete bed certainly not a medieval tradition concerned with ventilation in fact the central tower was added to the design in order to help support ventilation in the building and so this building really is a product of the 19th century architectural historians call this the Gothic Revival and the Gothic really did stand for a kind of Victorian fantasy in 19th century fantasy of medieval artisan craftsmanship of a time of really taking care in making things by hand and so we look at this and we just see if an architectural style but as a style that's really associated with very specific values that the Victorians are trying to return to and in fact pujan one of the two architects who worked on this building published a book called contrasts which paired the modern and the medieval worlds and the modern world did not come out well it was a deeply moralizing book that looked at the way in which medieval society was full of moral virtue but the modern society had squandered that so for example there was one famous plate that showed the modern city where the skyline was dominated by factories and smokestacks versus the medieval city where the landscape was dominated by church steeples that is by a reference for God a kind of moral center comparison between a world guided by faith that he imagined was the medieval gothic world and a world guided by hunger for money and he's drawing very stark contrasts but the Victorians loved to do that love to compare the old medieval world of faith with the new modern quest for money and fortune and so it's important for us to understand a building like this within that Victorian context let's get back to the building itself we see this magnificent exterior that just spans the edge of the River Thames and we can see this reference back to the medieval style of the perpendicular gothic and in fact it was very self-consciously based on the Chapel of Henry the seventh in this late Gothic style that we know is the perpendicular it's just at the East End of Westminster Abbey which is a building that is just behind this one and here we can see these large windows an emphasis on the rectilinear on the vertical untraceable ace work you can see that each window has at its top tracery work that divides the glass almost like a filigree in fact the architect is really maximizing the window space and this is a feature of the high gothic Mary had traveled extensively and really loved the classical tradition even though he's building here in this faux graphic but if you look closely you can see Barry's interest in the classical look at the regularity of this facade look at the sense of rhythm and balance and it's really only the exterior decorative forms that refer to the Gothic style because the building as a whole is laid out with a kind of symmetry regularity that is really at odds even with the conception of the Gothic from the 18th and 19th centuries where the idea of the picture asked the idea of the organic the idea of the asymmetrical was so important so he could say that this is in some ways a classical building with a gothic skin on it nevertheless work perhaps because of this the houses of parliment it's just such an extraordinary example of the 19th century's concern for historical style and interest in avoiding confronting the modern [Music]