Thursday 16 Jun 2011

From Fonthill Abbey to St Pancras Hotel: Buildings to impress

In a book called ‘Visions of Architecture’ (Bloomsbury A&C Black 2011 ISBN 978-1-4081-2881-7, £16-99) the author Stephen Lees examines various buildings and the fascinating facts that caused their creation due to what might be termed the ‘Construction Process’ involving seven disciplines: Architecture, Religion, Engineering, Arts, Psychology, Economics and Politics, the influences of which have eluded people even though they may be familiar with the structures. Over the coming weeks, Stephen will share his findings with WAN readers in an exclusive seven-part series...

Strawberry Hill villa in London initiated Gothick architecture, based on Romanticism, ruins, and novels by Walter Scott and Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein. This new desire for Gothick architecture made the psychotic megalomaniac William Beckford turn his house, Fonthill Abbey, into largest Gothick fantasy in the world based literally on the dimensions of Salisbury Cathedral, but stretched to terrifying proportions. Gothick became Neo-Gothic that created the Romantic Gothic-Revival architecture typified at the St. Pancras Hotel, London. This hotel represents not so much a Neo-Gothic building but rather a retreat into fantasy and fear. The reason for its very definite Neo-Gothic design was as a result of the teachings of Darwin, in particular the idea of evolution and the improbability of life after death. This concept made the Victorian seek refuge in the glory days of the Perpendicular Gothic style that created the Cathedrals, which represented clear unequivocal religious authority and belief in God.

Neo-Gothic was an attempt to bring religious comfort to the Victorian troubled mind and was prevalent during from the mid Victorian era. By contrast, the Classical style is based on pagan worship of Olympian gods. Gothic symbols of Romanticism as in pinnacles, turrets, crenellated gable ends and ubiquitous fairies were used by the Victorians, obsessed with death as an escape from reality into oblivion as consolation for their terror of a God-less afterlife. Fuelled by Pre-Raphaelites artists such as the unstable Rosetti who broke into his wife’s Mausoleum seven years after bricking her up in order to retrieve his poems placed in the tomb! Followed by Millais who painted a scene showing a dead wife in her bridal gown at the foot of the bed exhorting her very much-alive husband to join her! These artists and others had a profound affect on the Victorian psyche. Fairies and ghosts were very much in demand and fully represented in the arts during the Victorian period.

Fairies made an astonishing debut in the music of Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Edward Elgar in Suite No 2 Op 1 ‘Fairies and Giants’ and ‘The Starlight Express’ Op 78. Also in the operas of Wagner, ‘Die Feen’- The Fairies to say nothing of ‘Götterdämmerung’- Twilight of the Gods. Eventually the Victorians resorted to the Egyptian method of achieving immortality irrespective of God by adopting the Necropolis, a city of the dead and the stone built Mausoleum for their own use and, accordingly constructed the largest Necropolis on earth at Brookwood in Surrey. Continuing the search for religious justification and monumentalism, the Catholic Church embarked on an ambitious plan designed by Edwin Lutyens, the creator of the Egyptian style Cenotaph in London, to construct in Liverpool, ‘the largest Cathedral in the world.’ That insane plan not only resulted in bankruptcy and massive failure but created the ‘Ghost Cathedral’ complete with two Egyptian Pyramids on the only part of the Cathedral built - the Plinth in which the Crypts and Pontifical Hall are formed.

Stephen Lees
Visions of Architecture

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