Understand the Victorian

The Albert Memorial on Kensington Gore (in London) gets a scrub. (Hulton/Getty)

The Albert Memorial on Kensington Gore (in London) gets a scrub. (Hulton/Getty)

Stephen Bayley, the architecture critic for the Telegraph, has written “Some Victorian buildings should be left to die.” He is correct, but some is a vague word, to say the least. “All modernist buildings should be left to die” is a far stronger, more precise, statement, with the virtue of being quite true. What Bayley would never admit is that almost all Victorian buildings are far more attractive than almost all modernist buildings. Indeed, the reason we want to save Victorian buildings is not so much that they are beautiful but that every saved Victorian building eliminates the possibility of an ugly new modernist building on its spot. Now that’s progress!

Here are Bayley’s first two ignominious paragraphs:

There was something seriously wrong with the Victorians. Their architecture has an inclination to ugliness that defies explanation by the shifting tides of tastes. So much of it is wilfully challenging, even visually hostile.

After millennia of experience, jobbing builders and, since 1834, professional architects acquired certain rules about proportion and detail that were generally agreed to work well, both practically and artistically. These [rules] so many Victorian buildings contumaciously defied. We look on them now with blank horror.

[Commenter Tony James astutely observes that replacing the word Victorian with the word modernist in the quotes switches them from false to true!]

Unless you define “so many” as “very few,” this is untrue. Victorian architecture may violate certain precepts of classical design (to which I believe Bayley refers), but it does not violate the more important architectural precepts that value organized complexity over a foolish simplicity. Since the advent of modernism and its cult-like collection of slobbering acolytes, it has become common to hear architectural historians intone that generations have disliked Victorian architecture. Generations of architectural historians, perhaps, but generations of the public have never stopped liking Victorian architecture, and if you define “liking Victorian architecture” as “liking it more than modern architecture,” then the assertion gains the factual augmentation of a steel-reinforced concrete bunker.

Likewise for Bayley’s assertion that “tastes change.” Yes, they do, but the widespread preference for Victorian and other traditional buildings buildings is not a matter of taste but of a hard-wired preference for the natural over the unnatural in our brains. “Taste,” so-called, is merely a reflection of what taste-makers assert, which is almost always at odds with the truth as dictated by the preferences of average people, who have not had their sophisticated aesthetic instincts expurgated by a higher degree in art, design, architecture or their (supposed) appreciation. Tastes change largely because taste-makers cannot stand saying what earlier taste-makers have already said.

Bayley’s piece is accompanied by a poll that asks readers whether they think Victorian buildings should be “saved at all costs” or be torn down to make way for “the new.” At the time I voted, the former had got 79 percent approval. No surprise there.

Still, for its amusement value please read Bayley’s entire piece.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Understand the Victorian

  1. Piers Dalrymple says:

    I think that Stephen Baileys difficulties arise from his reluctance to admit that all the best architectural ideas have been used up!


  2. Peter Kellow says:

    It would be a good idea to “leave Victorian buildings to die” and at the same time do the same with Modernist buildings. Then in fifty years time only the Victorian buildings would be still standing.


  3. Tony James says:

    The first paragraph you quote, David, is just perfect, because you could very simply exchange the word “Modern” for “Victorian” and it would totally correct a grave misperception on Bayley’s part, and make the statement oh so true.

    The second paragraph you quote also is an apt description of most modern buildings, which we look on with blank horror . . .


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