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Critical scrutiny

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The Architect's Secret: Victorian Critics and the Image of Gravity By J Mordaunt Crook. John Murray, 2003. £20

In this elegant book of essays, J Mordaunt Crook sets out in search of that tectonic Holy Grail, the secret of beauty in architecture, and, rather surprisingly, finds it - in the occasional writings of a poet. His vehicle for the quest is a study of four Victorian architectural critics, whom he examines individually in essays; each of which began life as an illuminating and entertaining public lecture, a medium in which, like Summerson and Goodhart-Rendel before him, he excels.

Never (before the self-promoting present) can so many words have been addressed to the problems of architecture as in the reign of Victoria, and it is refreshing to have a discussion of writers and critics other than Pugin and Ruskin. Crook's quartet is, however, to some extent curious. George Aitchison, the sole architect among them, was only occasionally an interesting designer and he turns out to be a repetitive old bore, endlessly banging on until the end of his long life about his age's irrelevant failure to find that lesser grail, a 'new style'.

The Rt Hon AJB Beresford Hope MP, who managed to be president of the RIBA, might seem more promising, considering his influential role in the Ecclesiological Society and his practical encouragement of the Gothic Revival in being the patron of Butterfield's seminal All Saints, Margaret Street, but he emerges as a humourless, arrogant AngloCatholic grandee. Seizing on the key idea of 'development', Beresford Hope advocated progressive eclecticism as the answer, but then - like so many pundits - seemed unable or unwilling to recognise it when it arrived. Heathcote Statham, editor of The Builder, got it right when he called Beresford Hope an 'educated philistine'.

The really worthwhile subjects in The Architect's Secret are the clergyman and the poet. The Reverend Benjamin Webb is best known as the co-founder of the Cambridge Camden Society, that hugely influential cabal of bigots that became the Ecclesiological Society, for he never enjoyed any subsequent preferment.

However, he wrote a huge number of articles about architecture, many or most of them anonymously. (A further virtue of this book is that we are given an exhaustive bibliography for each writer. ) Crook's chapter, though, is entitled 'The Reality of Brick', as it discusses not only Webb but his connection with the greatest High Victorian Goth of them all, that awkward, brilliant archetype of architectural integrity and individuality, William Butterfield. This is because it emerges that Webb had a greater influence on Butterfield's developing style and use of colour than Ruskin; indeed, Crook argues, we have, in fact, been seeing All Saints, Margaret Street, or Keble College through Webb's eyes for the last century and a half, even when in terms of the persistent notion of deliberate 'ugliness'.

This essay is a fine and necessary study of Butterfield. 'By manipulating the Victorian language of reality - always an aesthetic rather than a strictly functional concept - Butterfield turns structure into an image of structure, in this case an image of volume delineated, of gravity defied, ' says Crook.

With this, he ventures into the sphere of semiotics and pursues the theme that architecture at its best is a symbol of structural forces, an image of gravity, in his final and most important essay on Coventry Patmore.

Those acquainted with the Roman Catholic church in Hastings, which he paid for, designed by his friend Basil Champneys, will know that Patmore was interested in architecture, but he never wrote a book on the subject. However, by assiduously pursuing his articles and reviews published over almost half a century, Crook demonstrates that Patmore, alone among English critics, saw the truth that 'all great building converts the imperatives of gravity into soaring expressions of the human mind'.

Grounded as he was in the German idealist tradition of aesthetics, in Hegel and Schopenhauer, and informed by a wide range of reading (as Crook intimidatingly catalogues) Patmore came to the conclusion that: 'Weight, support and ascension are ideas which, in all times and languages, have been accepted as the most direct and forcible material images of the three great phases of sensuality, intellectuality and spirituality;

and those three phases are precisely those which it was desirable to express as adjuncts of the Egyptian, Greek and Christian worship.'

As far as he was concerned, there were only three styles that mattered, and of these the Gothic was the greatest, as in it the desire for ascent, the aspiration to soar upwards, was visibly and symbolically restrained by weight, by the law of gravity.

'Without forcible expression of security and permanence, ' wrote Patmore, 'in appearance as well as in reality, no building can rightly be called architectural.' And appearance is the thing. This explains why no architecture of the past 50 years is as aesthetically and intellectually satisfying as the best Victorian buildings, with their straining columns and relieving arches, and why all the arbitrary gravity-defying games achieved with steel and reinforced concrete, all those flying shards and blobs on stilts, seem trivial and childish compared with the calculated reassurance of a precisely composed arrangement of striated, solid walls by Butterfield.

Gavin Stamp teaches at the Mackintosh School of Architecture

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