The Historicist Requirement for the New Houses of Parliament: Gothic Revival as National Identity in 1830s Britain

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Trask, Jane, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Sewell, Jessica, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Virginia
Stevenson, Christine, Courtauld Institute of Art

On October 16th, 1834, a fire broke out at the Palace of Westminster in London. The reconstruction of the Houses of Parliament after this fire reveals a great deal about the cultural moment in which it occurred. In the competition held to identify the new design, it was required that all designs submitted must be in either a Gothic or Elizabethan style, a controversial decision in a context dominated by neoclassicism. In this thesis, the perfect storm of social, religious, political, military, and literary events that aligned in the 1830s to invite the Gothic Revival into London are explored. The choice to use a historicist style on the new national government building was an exercise in building a stronger British identity in the 1830s.

This conglomeration of changes at work in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries altered how residents of the British Isles understood themselves and their country. After the Napoleonic Wars, classicism was used as a clear language of triumph in architectural development, but the mode of self-confident expression changed in the 1830s because there were shifts in what was required in a national building and identity—namely, a need for something more uniquely “British.” There was no longer a common enemy against which to unite, and the laws and sentiments against Catholicism had relaxed slightly, making reclamation of pre-Reformation architecture as a national symbol possible. It became important to find something more unique to the British Isles and to avoid relying on continental forms. The Gothic Revival was utilized at the new Parliament because it had the potential to connect to a history that was British above anything else.

This thesis is about the meaning behind architectural style. Through a deep exploration of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament in an elaborate Gothic style, it connects social and architectural history to a shifting sense of national identity. Chapter One sets up the development and disintegration of the British identity on the eve of the 1834 fire. Chapter Two covers the competition and design processes, as well as some of the debates that informed these processes. Chapter Three seeks to answer the ultimate question of “why gothic?” through a detailed discussion of the public conversation and why Gothic Revival was what was needed at this turbulent moment in the history of British identity.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Houses of Parliament, Palace of Westminster, Gothic Revival, Architecture and Identity, London
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