Opinion: A Gothic horror at Windsor Castle
This is theme park design for theme park royals
Wednesday 08 March 1995
This was John Ruskin writing in 1859, but he might have been doing so today: the accusation stands. A century and half on from Ruskin we find ourselves in the middle of yet another Gothic revival, whose latest manifestation is the much-publicised design for the rebuilding of St George's Hall at Windsor Castle.
The architect, Giles Downes, professes that he chose the Gothic style in order to offer some continuity with the original building, and such a decision, on the face of it, seems admirably Ruskinian. But in reality, Downes has reduced Gothic to an oversimplistic formula. The use of timber is well and good, but the relationship Downes establishes between form and space at Windsor seems altogether too timid, the geometry unsophisticated and the all-important "plant structure" hideously overstylised. The result is a bland, brutalisation of a noble style into an Art Deco pastiche worthy of the prop makers of Cecil B De Mille rather than medieval master masons like Henry Yevele.
In a recent article Downes was reported to have admitted that he had "been taught no architectural history during his training ... designing in Gothic and working on a grand scale has been a steep learning curve".
Given this lack of basic knowledge, perhaps Downes should have asked himself a simple question before embarking on his design: "What was it that made the Gothic the appropriate style in the 19th century for church, school and castle?" A supplementary question he might ask: "And what makes it inappropriate today?"
The idea of Gothic revivalism had existed at least since the 1670s, when Wren put his Gothic pepperpot, Tom Tower, on the gatehouse of Christ Church, Oxford. The style was variously interpreted by Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor, Kent, Walpole and, in the 19th century, by Pugin, to name only a few post-renaissance Goths. Ruskin, however, had much the last word on the development of industrial- era Gothic and it is to him that Downes might have looked before shutting himself away in his garage to make wooden models for Windsor.
For Ruskin, beauty was analogous to natural form, and it was this principle, derived in part from his study of geology and botany, which imbued Gothic with divinity. In his book The Stones of Venice, Ruskin attempted to prove that Gothic was morally improving, that Gothic was a physical expression of human virtues. The closest that any architects have yet come to a practical realisation of his complex ideas of the divine perfection of Gothic can be seen in William Butterfield's All Saints', in Margaret Street, London, and in a number of parish churches by Butterfield, Street, Bodley and Garner. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral (completed as late as 1978) represented the final leap of the virtuous Gothic imagination.
Downes's Windsor Gothic appears to look back to the soulless fantasy Gothick beloved of William Beckford and Horace Walpole. Downes has tamed the savage purity essential to Gothic, bringing to Windsor Castle a theatrical style eminently suitable for evenings of olde worlde medieval feasting. This is theme park design for theme park royals.
Although Downes has won the competition and his plans have been approved by, among others, that great arch-revivalist the Prince of Wales, is it yet too late for architect and patrons to reconsider?
Perpendicular Gothic is this nation's one exemplary style of truly indigenous architecture. In misunderstanding its nature and ignoring its meaning, we admit a failure to recognise the real worth of our own aesthetic traditions. Architecture is never less than a mirror of an age and, in his ersatz Gothic, Downes reflects an era when style is ranked above content and we treat history like a low-quality cut-and-paste picture book.
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