THE ARCHITECTURAL PROFESSION HAD TO REGULATE ITSELF DUE TO THIS VAST BUILDING BOOM
Jonathan Foyle's history of architects reaches the Victorian age and the regulation of the profession with the formation of the RIBA.
Queen Victoria's reign witnessed an unparalleled diversity of architectural styles, and the creation of the RIBA. Both would last beyond the duration of her lifetime.
During the previous half-century, Britain had established itself as the global leader of technological progress. In 1804, Richard Trevithick's Penydarren was the first locomotive to haul a load. It and all subsequent engines required new architectural solutions for spanning and embracing improbable distances. From the 1830s to the end of the 19th century, as the railways spread between urban centres, competitively grand public buildings filled Britain's towns and cites in a crescendo of civic rivalry.
The phrase 'middle class' was first coined in 1811, and the nouveau riche spent much of their money on creating domestic idylls. With no aristocratic lineage, the architecture of the middle classes usually conveyed the impression of ancestral grounding with overblown historical references. For many of the lower classes the 19th century was an uneasy time: clamouring for work at docksides as ships came in or toiling at a machine for most of the daylight hours. Their houses were often shared back-to-backs with a common pump in a yard.
New industrial cities were founded from tiny nuclei:
Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham and Newcastle reshaped the Midlands and the north of England, while Glasgow, Belfast and Liverpool formed the Irish Sea urban triumvirate. As town centres were cleared for the railways, the architectural profession had to regulate itself to meet the demands of this vast building boom.
The Institution for British Architects (IBA) was founded in 1835, with its raison d'être to create a professional identity and foster education for architects. In order to establish a prestigious public image, the transactions of meetings were published in the Architectural Magazine from 1834-37, the Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal from 1837, and the Builder from 1842.
The publication of the IBA's transactions allowed for open inspection of the mandate of the institute, which received a royal charter during the year of Victoria's coronation. Overseen by its inaugural president the Earl de Grey, the Royal Institute of British Architects in London (it dropped the last bit in the 1890s) increased it membership from 82 in 1835 to 159 within five years. It took seven years' practice to qualify as a fellow; an associate would seem to have had less than seven years' experience.
Nonetheless, Ruskin thought the whole enterprise pointless, and in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1855) he barked that 'the suggestion of an independent architectural profession' was nothing more than a 'mere modern fallacy: isn't architecture the sum of diverse artisans' labours?'.
The Victorian designer differed greatly from his Georgian predecessor: in the 18th century the Palladian ideal was nearuniversal and there was little scope for falling out over style.
But in the 19th century, style was a highly personal matter, and cementing client trust became an important issue. An architect might favour Elizabethan over Perpendicular, Greek, Indian or Romanesque, but a client could have different enthusiasms in an age when style and politics had become powerfully connected.
The RIBA promoted design competence within a broad church.
The architect had to be able to understand various idioms and argue the merits of another matter; education was the key.
The problem was that the RIBA didn't provide a rounded education: the in-house topics stretched only to botany and geology. But the establishment of the University of London in 1836 brought about a professorship of architecture, and UCL offered a three-year course leading to a diploma in architecture and engineering. The curriculum was encyclopaedic:
year one: junior mathematics, natural philosophy (experimental), inorganic chemistry, general geology and drawing;
year two: senior mathematics, natural philosophy (mathematical), civil engineering, architecture, economic geology and drawing;
year three: civil engineering, architecture, organic chemistry and drawing.
The professor, T L Donaldson, also happened to be the first secretary of the RIBA, and he provided two year-long courses of lectures for part-time students covering a syllabus of five pages, which cost £9. These courses were 'architecture as a science' and 'architecture as an art'. This dubious division between the functional and the aesthetic might well represent attitudes to Victorian design for the rest of the century.
Disenfranchised students have always created alternatives, and so it was with the young architects alienated from the RIBA.
They founded the Association of Architectural Draftsmen in 1842, and would teach themselves through mutual criticism. By 1847, this renegade institution had shortened its name to the Architectural Association (AA) and met at Lyons Inn Hall in the Strand. Its fortunes wavered; however, a celebrity lecture by Ruskin boosted numbers after 1857 and, during the 1860s, in response to French practice, the AA established the first professional syllabus for architects, with testing and examination.
In 1840 the Institute of the Architects of Ireland was inaugurated, which sought parity with the RIBA in establishing codes of conduct. It estimated that 5 per cent was a suitable commission for design and superintendence; 1 per cent for a detailed estimate, and expenses at a fairly generous shilling a mile.
The Institute of Architects of Scotland was founded in 1840. Liverpool followed in 1848; Bristol in 1850; the Northern Architectural Association in 1858; and Nottingham in 1862.
The Manchester Society of Architects followed in 1865.
The RIBA continued to attract some adverse criticism.
In 1870 The Times declared it to be nothing more than a trade union; the charge was answered by the solidarity of the first general Conference of Architects in 1871. Its aims were to conform fees nationally, and to streamline the submission and judging of competitions, the basis of most large civic commissions. The latter was especially pressing since the debacle of George Gilbert Scott's Foreign Office, which was designed in the Gothic manner and accepted as such in 1861, but was, at the insistence of Lord Palmerston, subsequently reclad in Florentine Renaissance garb.
Manchester Town Hall offers a case study of a major Victorian competition. The heart of Manchester had been established as Albert Square with its Albert Memorial of 1862.
Manchester's civic pride made it the first city in Britain to ban back-to-back houses, while the town hall competition of 1867 was to be partly funded by profits from the municipal gasworks as a response to the gigantic halls of Leeds and Liverpool. The competitors were numerous but politics left few distinguished designers in the running. The winner was the Lancastrian Alfred Waterhouse, largely on account of the ingenuity of his plan, which made the best use of the triangular site. He put municipal offices around the perimeter and an elevated great hall in the centre. By using broken facades, oriel windows and stair turrets, he articulated the diverse functions and sizes of rooms, with the mayoral chambers expressed by large windows overlooking Albert Square.
The clock tower identifies the entrance at the centre of the square. It covers a vestibule rich in sculpture, where sweeping stairs rise to a great triangular-plan corridor with dramatically long vistas at each angle. Stairs interpenetrate, and bridges join the corridor to the Great Hall. In this design, Waterhouse had overcome the Foreign Office debacle and instead produced something that could never merely adopt a Classical skin because picturesque asymmetry was celebrated in the soaring and jutting angles. Furthermore, Gothic free planning triumphed where Classical rectilinearity would have failed, a principle for municipal offices then promoted in the Builder in 1878. The reaction from the people of Manchester was that it symbolised not only 'the opulence of the city but also the great principle of self-government'.
In 1886, the RIBA attempted to create a registration system to account for would-be 'architects'. Though the phrase 'registered architect' might have softened the blow, few were convinced that even voluntary registration would be anything other than a first step to the statutory exclusion of anyone who called themselves an architect or practised as one without the RIBA's corporate blessing. This, thought Richard Norman Shaw and T G Jackson, editors of Architecture: An Art or a Profession?
(1892), was an absurd situation: 'What then is an architect? [?] Put him into homely English and he appears simply a Masterbuilder - a chief craftsman - he to whom other workmen look to be told where to put their walls, how to shape their doors and windows, and how to cover them with the roof. [?] The profession of architect is an absurdity. [?] It is time the public should place the architect in his proper place, namely at the head of the arts, where he should be, and not endeavour to thrust him to the tail of the professions'.
Eight years prior to the 20th century, the idea of the modern architect was still a long way off.