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The Greek Revival and the Gothic Revival are terms that carry specific meanings in relation to the history of architecture. What did they represent at the time and what was the nature of the conflict between the respective adherents?
The Gothic Revival represented chiefly two things: firstly, in its earlier form, it was a Romantic celebration in stone of the spirit and atmosphere of the Middle Ages; secondly, in its later and more serious form, the Gothic Revival reflected the architectural and philosophical conviction of its exponents that the moral vigour of the Middle Ages was reflected in its Gothic architecture, and that the reintroduction of this Gothic style of architecture to eighteenth-century society could re-invigorate it morally. Neo-Gothic architecture in its earlier forms, typified by buildings such as Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, was characterized by a highly ornamental, decadent, visually powerful and intricate style; and, what is more, a style that cared little for functionalism or strict adherence to specific structures. By these characteristics Neo-Gothic architecture encapsulated the Romantic literary and poetic spirit of the age, as had been evinced in the works of men like Horace Walpole, Alfred Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott. In this sense, the Neo-Gothic was a nostalgic and sentimental backward glance. In a different sense the Gothic Revival represented the attempt of certain architects and churchmen to transfer the liturgical vigour of Gothic churches of the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century by capturing it in stone. Thus men like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin came to argue that the Gothic Revival represented a standard of moral excellence that was to be practised and imitated as widely as possible.
The Greek Revival grew out of the neoclassicism movement, and represented in essence an attempt by its adherents to find in the architecture of antiquity a form of architecture that corresponded to the principles of reason and order emerging from their own Age of Reason and Enlightenment. Neoclassicism, and the Greek Revival in particular, represented a pursuit for architectural and intellectual truth. An architect could perceive in the forms of antiquity principles of excellent reasoning and intelligence that prevailed in the rationalistic spirit of his own age, and by reinvigorating the ancient style the neoclassical architect could build buildings that were inspired by and inspired in others principles of reason and rationality. Neoclassicism and the Greek Revival conflicted with the Gothic Revival because they perceived the moral truths claimed by the Gothic revivalists as chiefly illusory and false. The Gothic Revival was, in the neo-classicist’s eyes, a decadent celebration of style over substance that elevated illusion and ornament above reason and truth. Neo-Gothic architects were seemingly content to produce endless copies and weak imitations of Gothic style merely to please frivolous aristocrats; neo-classicists however believed that their architecture was a creative act that gave birth to constantly new adaptations of the classical model. Neo-Gothic architects in turn conflicted with neoclassicism because it was cold and devoid of emotion, feeling or moral purpose; its elite attitude rendered any collaboration between the two styles most difficult.
Art historians divide the Gothic Revival into two stages, and each of these stages came to represent quite different ideas. The first stage of the Gothic revival was characterized a ‘raw’ and naive imitation of Gothic architecture that lacked either an architectural philosophy or a coherent system of organization. The first building of this early type was Lord Horace Walpole’s villa Strawberry Hill which was built in 1747; another prominent early specimen was Fonthill Abbey designed and built by James Wyatt. Both of these buildings, in the spirit of Walpole’s atmospheric novel Castle of Otranto (Walpole, 2004), were attempts to preserve in stone the Romantic atmosphere of the Middle Ages; both also demonstrated perhaps more clearly than any other buildings of this time the impracticality and lack of structure of much Neo-Gothic building. This first flourishing of Neo-Gothic architecture was extended into the public sphere also: for instance in the new Houses of Parliament designed and built by Sir Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin. In America too, this nascent Neo-Gothic style was reflected in buildings such as Richard Upjohn’s Trinity Church built in New York in 1840 and Renwick’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral also built in New York. The picturesque quality and organization of many of these buildings led to applause for its Romantic splendour, but also much criticism for its lack of substance and for its unfaithful imitation of the original Gothic form.
If the first stage of the Gothic Revival lacked diligent observation and restoration of Gothic architecture or philosophical principles, then serious efforts were made at the turn of the century to ground the movement more securely upon such principles. The ‘late’ period of Neo-Gothic is thus characterized by a stricter adherence to medieval architectural form and to a philosophical interpretation that viewed Gothic architecture as a paragon of moral virtue and excellence. In England two men were of foremost importance in the development of this second stage: A. Pugin and J. Ruskin. (In France, Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Due played an equally important role). By this time, architects were no longer content to merely imitate Gothic forms and designs, but sought to create original works founded upon the principles of the original Gothic architecture and which fitted to the particular circumstances of nineteenth-century society.
Thus at the turn of the nineteenth-century it is possible to observe a clear evolution in the form of the Gothic Revival away from the loose sentimentality and picturesque quality of the early period and towards a style of dominated by precise architectural limitation of Gothic form as made possible by detailed and comprehensive investigations into this style. One such early investigation was John Carter’s The Ancient Architecture of England (Carter, 1795) which was the first work that recorded with extensive detail and exactitude the Gothic style of medieval buildings; Thomas Rickman’s An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture (Rickman, 1817) gave an extensive account of the varieties of Gothic styles, whilst Pugin’s Specimens of Gothic Architecture (Pugin,1821) deepened and extended the range and accuracy of these initial investigations. Nonetheless, despite the great advances that had been made in the scholarship of the Gothic Revival, the actual building of Gothic buildings remained for some time in the earlier ornamental style that characterized the first period of the movement — famous examples being Windsor Castle which was restored in 1824 by Sir Jeffrey Wyatville, and King’s College Cambridge in 1827to 1831. The greatest use of the Neo-Gothic style at this time was however for church buildings — the style being cheaper and easier to construct than neoclassical designs.
For all the diligent and pain-staking work of the Gothic Revival scholars to come to life in actual buildings it took the skill and vision of one particular man. This man was Augustus Charles Pugin: he presented the argument that Neo-Gothic architectural style was the most fitting emblem of the spirit of the Catholic Church and so was also therefore the only permissible architectural form to express the work of Godin his Church. In Contrasts (1836) Pugin argued that architectural form imitates the condition of the society that creates it; since the society of medieval times was a paragon of virtue and moral integrity then it was natural and obvious that Gothic architecture is the most moral form of architecture. Thus in The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) Pugin was able to set down comprehensive and coherent principles for the justification of the Gothic Revival. In a major step away from the earlier decadence or the style, Pugin argued that all features and designs of a church must be essential for its correct functioning and structural shape; architecture form must be clean and purposeful since these are also the qualities that we expect of our moral condition. Pugin put this architectural philosophy into practice most assiduously in the years 1837 to 1844: in St Mary’s Church in Derby, in St. Wilfred’s Church in Manchester and in St. Oswald’s Church in Liverpool and many other church buildings. Pugin’s work quickly became an inspiration for Anglican Church reformers such as the Tractarians in Oxford who used his architectural church style as an ideal form by which to carry out their own agenda of church building restoration.
It should be noted here that Pugin’s work as well as that of many other architects across Britain and Europe was profoundly influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin and his two seminal works The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (Ruskin,1854). Ruskin’s ideas were inspired by the architectural forms that he had seen in Italy and particularly in Venice; Ruskin thus argued that Gothic was the supreme form of architecture due to the ‘sacrifice’ made by stonemasons in detailing every stone of a building. Ruskin thus exalted Doge’s Palace as ‘ the central building in the world‘ (Ruskin, 1854) — arguing that Pugin’s programme of Gothic Revival in churches should be extended to government buildings also. Moreover, Ruskin himself by his teachings extended the Gothic Revival further by promoting a ‘polychromatic’ style of work inspired by Italian Gothic architecture. This work in turn inspired buildings such as Butterfield’s All Saint’s Church, Keble College in Oxford and Rugby School.
In short, by the end of the eighteenth century the Gothic Revival had been transformed from what began as a Romantically inspired fondness for majestic ornamentalism, into a style of architecture grounded upon powerful moral and philosophical principles as well as an intricate and comprehensive awareness of Gothic form.
The Greek Revival, a growth out of the neoclassicism movement, flourished in the years 1750-1830, and was in many ways the antithesis of the Neo-Gothic form of architecture with which it was contemporaneous. As we have seen, whatever its later manifestations, the Gothic Revival had been a product of Romanticism and of the passions and emotions; the Greek Revival, in complete contrast, exalted reason, the intellect and rationality above all else. Neoclassicism sought as its highest aim to realize architectural and intellectual purity and truth — in stark contrast to what it perceived to be the ornamentalism and illusory truth of the Neo-Gothic style. ‘Neo’-classicism was founded upon a corpus of work that had in antiquity achieved canonical status, that is, it was based upon the observation of ‘classic’ art and classic form. In the words of Crook (1995) ‘ Ideally – and neoclassicism is essentially an art of the ideal – an artist, well-schooled and comfortably familiar with the canon, does not repeat in a lifeless reproductions, but synthesizes the tradition anew in each work ‘. In other words, neoclassicism — of which the Greek Revival was to become the most refined example — sought the highest possible levels of artistic achievement; the neo-classicist style existed only to reinterpret for contemporary circumstances the great work and principles that had already been achieved in the past. Thus, in Crook’s words (1995), ‘Neoclassicism exhibits perfect control of an idiom’ (Crook,1995); that is perfection already achieved, the architect’s task is to fit that perfection of antiquity in a modern cast. All of these above points are significant for understanding the opposition of architects of the Greek Revival against the Gothic Revival. For, in the beginning, much of Neo-Gothic architecture consisted of little more than crude and naive imitations of far superior original Gothic works. Thus in such imitation work there was no creativity and no continuation of the development of an existing idiom. Thus Neo-Gothic form was viewed by Greek revivalists as superfluous and as inferior to their own architectural pursuits.
The emergence of the Greek Revival was made possible by an astonishing efflorescence of archaeological exploration into the sites and cultures of classical Rome and Greece around the middle of the eighteenth century. The discoveries of the archaeologists inspired and sustained the Greek revival. In 1719 Bernard de Montfaucon’s released his giant ten-volume opus Antiquity Explained and Represented in Diagrams (Montfaucon, 1719). This book was hugely popular and intrigued the imaginations hundreds and thousands of European tourists who began to flock to the sites of ancient Rome and Greece. Furthermore, the sensational excavations of cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748 and 1738 further fuelled the imaginations of architects, archaeologists, novelists and many others. Many other works on classical art and architecture such as Giovanni Piranesi’sPrima Parte di Architecttura, Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Temple of the Emperor Diocletian (Adam’s, 1764)were soon published and led to still further thousands going on adventures to the Continent.
This general interest in classical antiquity quickly transformed in the eighteenth century into a burst of fascination with Greek antiquities in particular and displayed a conviction as to the superiority of Greek above Roman architecture. The discovery of the sixth-century ruins of Paestrum received much publicity and was recorded by Italian artist Domenico Antonini and French architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot; soon afterwards Pancrazi published his seminal Antichita Siciliane and Dumont released his Ruins de Paestrum. Deeper investigation into the Greek mainland territory led James Stuart and Nicholas Revett to publish The Antiquities of Athens (Stuart & Revett, 1750) which was highly influential upon architects in England. Whilst it took some time for this appreciation of Greek form to be turned into actual imitative buildings nonetheless the superiority of Greek to Roman architecture had been established by the time of Johan Winckelmann’s Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks in 1765.
Thus architects of the Greek Revival sought to infer from these classical forms principles of order and reason that corresponded to those being discovered in their own age of Enlightenment; neoclassical architects argued that if their own buildings came to embody these principles then society at large would be edified by the experience. Nonetheless, the Greek Revival, like Neoclassicism generally, contained an inherent paradox. Its longing backward-stare to the times of antiquity was inspired by as much by an emotional fondness for antiquity (supposedly the characteristic of the Romantic Gothic Revival) as a predilection for principles of pure reason and rationality. Thus some twentieth century arthistorians have come to speak of this aspect of the Greek Revival as ‘Romantic Classicism’ (Stillman, 1998).
After 1800, in England, the internal dynamics of Neoclassicism directed the movement away from Roman architecture and toward that of ancient Greece – as such, a huge number of buildings were built in these years according to the architectural principles of ancient Greece. Sir John Soane, the architect of the Bank of England, developed a highly influential architectural style that involved promoting the linear abstraction of classical Greek forms and, by using extensive archaeological evidence to inform the designs of patterns, he achieved a spectacular dramatization of the interior spaces of his buildings — a style reminiscent of Etienne-Louis Boullee and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux on the continent. A prominent example of this new style in England was Downing College, Cambridge, modelled upon the Erechtheum from the Acropolis in Athens. The Covent Garden Theatre in London, built by Sir Robert Smirke, was the first Doric style building in the capital; the planning of Regent Street as well as Regent Street Park by John Nash reflected the use of classical Greek styles of city planning and organization. So too the British Museum in London built in 1847 is perhaps the most prominent example of ionic Greek imitation in Britain. In Edinburgh — named admiringly the’ Athens of the North’ by locals at the time — the Greek Revival was extremely influential in the eighteenth century, as shown in buildings such as the Royal High School and the Royal Scottish Academy. The dominance of Greek neoclassical architecture would dominate the British landscape until the advent of Modernism in the twentieth century.
In the final analysis, even if it is paradoxical to say so in light of the sustained conflict that existed between them, both the Gothic Revival and Greek Revival had similar goals, and used similar means to attain those goals. The Gothic Revival began life as a celebration of the spirit and forms of a time other than its own: the Middle Ages. So too, the Greek Revival was engendered by a renascent fascination with classical archaeology and the Greek Revival’s preoccupation was with the ideals and forms of ancient Greece – somewhere even more removed than Medieval Europe! The Greek Revival ultimately represented an attempt to renew and reinvigorate the classical Greek belief in the purity and perfection of architectural form and its corresponding revelation of ‘truth’. It was thus no coincidence that the spirit of the neoclassical age was also dominated by the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. The Greek Revival thus cast the ancient principles of classical Greece in the mould of eighteenth century rationality; the aim here, like with the later Gothic Revival, being to produce a form of architecture that would edify society. The bitter conflict between the Gothic Revival and the Greek Revival can be explained simply by the fact that each were prepossessed by attitudes quite contrary to the other: one exalting reason and order, the other passion and emotion. Both revivals were each consumed in the whirlwind of their own zeitgeist and only with retrospect and the other advantages of history is it possible show the equal validity of their separate truths.
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Carter, J. (1795). The Ancient Architecture of England. Sawsbury Press, Sawsbury.
Crook, J.M. (1995). The Greek Revival: Neoclassical Attitudes in British Architecture 1760-1870. John Murray, London.
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