Not Quite Architecture: The point that the pharaohs made

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The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza is justly famous; rather less well known is 'Mad Jack' Fuller's pyramid in Brightling churchyard. Fuller, a Sussex squire, was one of Britain's most prominent pyramid enthusiasts in the years following the Battle of the Nile (1798), when the British chased Napoleon out of Egypt. Ever since, the pyramid has recurred as an entertaining sub-plot in British architecture.

Rising 25ft, Fuller's pyramid falls somewhat short of the Cheops version, which tops 450ft with a base extending over 13 acres. But whereas in Egypt the pyramid was pivotal to the working of society, in Britain it has never been more than a romantic folly, or else associated with masonic rituals and abstruse treatises on sacred geometry.

Rather fewer than the 2.3 million blocks of stone that make up the world's greatest pyramid went into the construction of its East Sussex successor. According to Herodotus, the Great Pyramid of Cheops took 20 years to build (between 2549 and 2526BC), requiring 100,000 men drawn from the length of the Nile and working in three-month rotas. Fuller's pyramid was about a year in the making (1810-11) and kept a clutch of local craftsmen gainfully employed.

The Romans adopted the pyramid (seen as a form of ancient monument even then) from the time of Octavian's annexation of Egypt in 30BC. It was through Rome, Italy and the Renaissance that the British discovered the pyramid. The geometric structure was incorporated into 16th- and 17th-century buildings, mostly in the form of decorative relief. Only in the 18th century did the pyramids of Britain's country churchyards and estates begin to rise, although they were distinctly rustic compared to the Egyptian orginals.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops, for example, a model of precision mathematics and construction, had once been covered in a skin of polished limestone and capped in beaten gold. In the crystal clear light of Egypt, it must have been almost impossible to look upon at certain times of day, reinforcing perhaps the notion that this was the vessel through which the dead pharaoh passed into the sun and the realm of the gods. Even on the brightest day, Jack Fuller's melancholic pyramid never shines.

The legacy of Fuller and the pharaohs lives on in contemporary architecture, although stripped of all religious significance. The best-known contemporary pyramid is the entrance to the Louvre, designed by the American architect IM Pei. In London, the roofs of Canary Wharf Tower and the tower at Chelsea Harbour are capped with pyramids, as are the roofs of a school in Marylebone.

The developer Ian Pollard (designer of the candy-striped Marco Polo building on the south side of Battersea Bridge) has been threatening for some while to build a leisure centre in the form of a pyramid alongside the Homebase shop in Warwick Road, Kensington.

Now that leisure - enforced or chosen - is our principal religion, it seems only appropriate that the pyramid, that most ancient religious structure, might yet be pressed into service to appease its adherents. The pyramid has haunted the landscapes of desert, jungle and imagination for 5,000 years. It has long been a solemn object and the stuff of mystery. Today it has become simply another fa-la in the box of decorative tricks available to Post-Modern architects.

Where to find pyramids in the British Isles:

Blickling Hall



Tong Castle, Shropshire

Stanway Pyramid


Swift's tomb

Castelrickard churchyard, Co Meath

Needle's Eye

Woodhouse, Wentworth, South Yorks

St Paul's Walden


Nostell Priory

Sharlston, West Yorks

Halswell House

Goathurst, Surrey

Castle Howard

North Yorkshire

Knill Monument

St Ives, Cornwall

Waterloo Monument

Torrington, Devon

Farley Mount


The Neale

near Louisburg,

Co Mayo

Mount Mapas

Killiney, Dublin

(Photographs omitted)