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The hard legacy of Victorian urban distaste

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In his BBC2 programme Victoria died in 1901 and is still alive today, Jonathan Meades ducked and dived his way through a kaleidoscopic survey of Victorian architectural and cultural history before finally arriving at what seems to be his key contention: that the Victorians destroyed our cities. 'The ultimate architectural legacy of Victoria's reign is the collective mindset of cities as morally and physically corrupting, ' states Meades with angry conviction. 'The cities were neglected in the race to get out of them, ' and the obsession with 'every Englishman getting his castle'- the 'only civil liberty' the British have ever been interested in - has meant that 'there is no land left to go back to'.

Meades lays the blame for the spread of medievalism, and the correlative spread of the suburbs, squarely at the door of William Morris, for whom he displays a scarcely disguised contempt.

Morris, who thought he could 'change the world with wallpaper', became an effective massproducer of 'technophobic nostalgia', in his desire to 'inflict his childhood [of medieval fantasy] on a nation'.

It was inevitable, suggests Meades, that in such a cultural climate Britain should have rejected Art Nouveau - partly 'to be out of step with Europe', but essentially because it 'celebrates machine production'. For, as the crucible of the industrial revolution, Britain was also the 'first country to react against urbanisation and industrialisation'.

How different was this state of mind, and the coy, vapid architecture which accompanied it, from the earlier periods of Victoria's reign in which buildings exuded hard-edged, muscular self-confidence. Meades lauds the work of 'Greek' Thomson, 'unique in Britain', but widely copied and a model for the development of British cities, but for the insidious spread of medievalism.

This leads Meades to challenge conventional wisdom, suggesting that the defining imperative of Victorian architecture was not the tension generated by the Classic/Gothic stylistic dialectic, but rather a division that still exists today between 'hard and soft'and 'artifice and naturalism'.

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