Walker: “Babylon electrified”

1838 version of Robert Owens's New Harmony utopia with overlay of Mughal forms. (courtold.org.uk)

1838 version of Robert Owens’s New Harmony utopia with overlay of Mughal forms. (courtold.org.uk)

Nathaniel Robert Walker, whose essay on food and architecture many readers here recall fondly, has sent me another essay, this one entitled “Babylon Electrified: Oriental Hybridity as Futurism in Victorian Utopian Architecture.” The title may sound daunting but, as with “Architecture and food,” the subject and its treatment are fascinating and delightful.

With much detail and quotation from original sources, Walker – who, Brown doctorate in hand, now teaches architectural history at the College of Charleston – demonstrates that much architectural thinking in the 19th century imagined cities of the future that partook of architectural styles from around the world. Walker offers a collection of quotes from the 20th century asserting that architects of the prior century embraced a variety of historical styles, often several in the same building, primarily in order to mask or even to deter the onset of the Industrial Age and its “utilitarian” styles. Walker then suggests that much thinking since then has undermined the validity of that conceit:

In the many decades that have passed since these condemnations of architectural “borrowing,” a number of scholars have demonstrated that nineteenth-century revivalist eclecticism was, in fact, often deliberately crafted not as hodgepodge escapism, but rather as part of a progressive search for a definitively modern — if obviously not Modernist — architecture.

Of course, the debate continues over whether and to what extent classicism has been, continues to be, and ought to be mixed with the many strains of tradition, Western and otherwise. With the upcoming treatise on classicism and heterodoxy by New Urbanist founder Andrés Duany, that discussion has reached a fever pitch (rather, maintained a fever pitch for several years). It’s hard to find a type of traditional architecture that has not been permeated by the urge of individuals and organizations to monkey around with what is considered orthodox. Walker’s essay only confirms that heterodoxy’s history reaches even into the most distant corners of time and geographical space.

Nathaniel Robert Walker’s essay first appeared in Revival: Memories, Identities, Utopias, an online book newly published and offered free to the reading world by the Research Forum of the Courtauld Institute of Art at Somerset House, Strand, London, whose courtesy in permitting this reprinting is deeply appreciated. Other essays in the book, such as “The Problem of the Expiration of Style and the Historiography of Architecture,” by Martin Horáček, are also worthy of perusal.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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