IT WAS TIME FOR YOUNG ARCHITECTS TO GIVE UP DEPENDENCY ON PRACTICES
Jonathan Foyle's study of the history of architecture reaches the 19th century - the age of John Soane.
As is usual with historical studies, there is a roughly exponential curve of surviving evidence: the more current we get, the more material survives. It's therefore valid to present a concentrated account of the modern era of architecture. In the 1800s Britain suddenly developed a much greater population and became more urban - London transformed from a city of one million to six million - and we find a far more sophisticated architectural scene, one that can be called a profession for the first time.
Those who saw the last building sites for Georgian squares, with mews for ostlers and stables, and beheld the first railway stations channelling thousands through their smoke-filled glass halls must have been aware of enormous change in their own lifetimes. Thackeray looked back 40 years to his youth in the 1820s: 'It was only yesterday, but what a gulf between now and then? We who lived before railways and survive out of the ancient world are like Father Noah and his family out of the Ark.' To judge the difference this made to the architectural profession, it might be useful to chart the formative events at the end of John Soane's life. Soane was born in 1753. His training began by going to London at the age of 15 and studying in the office of the Neoclassicist George Dance the Younger, working on the still-surviving dining room extension to Pitshanger Manor in Ealing, which Soane would later purchase for himself. He then went to Henry Holland, whose short-lived masterpiece was the Prince Regent's Carlton House. Soane attended lectures at the Royal Academy (RA) and, in 1776, he won the RA's Gold Medal for the design of a Triumphal Bridge. This enabled him to take the Grand Tour, following in the well-worn footsteps of Lord Burlington, Robert Adam and many others, and so for two years from 1778 he studied continental architecture at first hand, especially ancient Roman ruins.
On his return, he married Elizabeth Smith, the niece of the childless George Wyatt, who held the lucrative contract for maintaining London's pavements. Soane took a house at 53 Margaret Street, roughly behind what is today John Lewis on Oxford Street. Upon Wyatt's death in 1790, his property was bequeathed to Soane and his wife, which yielded a sizeable rental income. Soane transformed one of Wyatt's old houses in Blackfriars into an office, as he could now afford to run a sizeable practice.
Naturally, needing help, he took on architectural students. But not all of them could benefit from the same patronage Soane had enjoyed from the RA, so if they couldn't go to the ruins of antiquity, the ruins would come to them. Plaster casts of busts, mouldings, capitals and urns were brought into Soane's drafting offices. From 1792, work began on transforming the 17th-century house he had bought in Lincoln's Inn Fields for £2,100, into a museum-like resource for himself, his students and his sons, although they would prove to be uninterested in architecture.
The present Students' Room at 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields was installed in 1821. Soane described it as 'well lighted, and peculiarly adapted for study? The place is surrounded with the marble Fragments and Casts, from the remains of antiquity, and from the Artists of the cinquecento; and the drawers are filled with architectural drawings and prints, for the instruction of the pupils.' Metals could now be used in the mass production of building materials, as could larger sheets of glass. Iron encouraged a leggy, skeletal aesthetic of its own that was only gradually exploited for itself: Soane's contemporaries had done their best to disguise it. James Wyatt designed the Castellated Palace in Kew for George III in 1802 with cast-iron columns, windows and a staircase that were all clad in a multi-turreted masonry shell (the extra strength just made it harder to blow up in 1827). The vault of Francis Hiorne's church at Tetbury in Gloucestershire was raised on stilt-like columns of iron, which were set in the Medievalising gesture of a cluster (of contiguous columns), while St Alkmund in Shrewsbury was given iron-pointed window frames, but their tracery was a starved version of a late 14th-century design.
It's always easier to see trends in hindsight. But early 19th-century architects surely couldn't have seen where technology was taking them when the mass migration of populations had a sudden effect on the shape of towns and cities. The end of the Napoleonic Wars saw the release of a £1 million for new churches.
It was the beginning of a boom, and the statistics are remarkably coherent. Census records show that between 1811 and 1821, England and Wales built 290,000 new houses. The national income nearly doubled from 1821 to 1851, as more people were absorbed into manufacturing. In 1821, Liverpool had a population of 138,000; by 1851 it had risen to 376,000. Its housing stock rose from 16,000 in 1811 to 38,600 in 1851. To translate those statistics into experience, the Reverend JR Stevens observed recent changes to Ashton-under-Lyne in 1849: 'Within a narrow ring of what a few years ago was clay bed and moorland with a stretch of hill and a sweep of lovely dale, now swarm not less than a hundred thousand souls. Suddenly, as if by spell of fairy or fiend, stray hamlet, scattered township and straggling parish have run together and have become one vast unbroken wilderness of mills and houses, a teeming town?' As streets of new houses constituted towns, then towns needed churches and synagogues, libraries and even universities, and suddenly the demand arose for both cheap houses and urban landmarks to satisfy a new sense of civic triumphalism. It was time for young architects to break from an expensive dependency on those rare practices such as Soane's, only to emerge with the precarious reward of the status of an architect which was still regarded as the occupation of a freewheeling gentleman, with few professional rules to adhere to (perhaps prefiguring the modern reputation of the estate agent). It was better to form something of a guild wherein they could influence their circle and be supported by peers. In 1817, a group of RA students formed an Architectural Students' Society, though nothing much transpired. But the intention lingered, and in 1831 the Architectural Society was born.
Its aim was to nurture those with five years' experience and guide their professionalism by means of fortnightly meetings.
The group said: 'The primary objects of this Society are the advancement and diffusion of Architecture, by promoting the intercourse of those engaged in its study; the ultimate desire being to form a British School of Architecture, with the advantages of a Library, Museum, Professorships, and Exhibitions; thus to increase the opportunities already afforded for its cultivation by Institutions of the Country, and? acquiring a knowledge of those Sciences which are essential to the true education of the Architect.' It provided meeting rooms which were open daily excepting only Sundays, Christmas and Easter Day, all for three guineas a year. This egalitarian ethos extended to a new attitude to caring about the public perception of the architectural profession. In 1833, a year after the Great Reform Bill brought in a bourgeois ruling class, TH Wyatt read a paper on 'the advantages likely to result from the establishment of the architectural society':
'I will venture to assert my belief that it would add much to the popularity of Architecture, if its Professors would study more the impression made upon the public by particular styles of building, instead of enforcing their own ideas of age and purity.' This sensitivity to public attitudes was underscored by Edward Cust, a champion of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament after its 1834 fire. He said of architects that they were 'men, whom the very circumstances of their position have made mannerists, and induced them to despise the taste of the times'.
In 1816, Thomas Rickman published a compendium of Gothic architectural details presenting archaeologically precise illustrations in an orderly stylistic sequence. This (over)simplicity offered a clear mental map of a long-derided and (excuse the pun) rather niche style. In 1821, the elder Pugin's Speciments of Gothic Architecture persuaded many critics of the aesthetic quality of Medieval architecture, soon to be reinforced by Pugin the Younger's Contrasts, which associated Gothic with a moral rectitude and civic orderliness.
Stylistically, architects were stuck in the mud and out of touch, but Wyatt also recognised that part of making a good public impression was relieving the profession from 'the exercise of all ungentlemanly and underhand conduct'. Nevertheless, the Architectural Society foundered amidst backbiting. Following further experiments, and a preliminary meeting at Mr Rainy's Rooms on Regent Street on 4 June 1834, it was in 1835 that the Institution for British Architects was founded. Messrs Seward, Basevi, Barry, Gwilt and Burton were among a fascinating mix of 12 theorists, stylistic pluralists and pioneers of iron and glass, who sat to draft a constitution on how the architectural profession would be run.
The IBA had arrived to establish firm standards for 'uniformity and respectability in the profession'. It was only a matter of time before it received its 'R'.