Architecture Of The 19th Century

THE period of the Greek Revival, which continued in full vigor through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, was subsequently antagonized and partially displaced by a new movement of historic studies and literary tastes which turned once more to the appreciation of the Middle Age.

The prejudice against the art and culture of the Middle Age, which had coined the word ” Gothic,” was of Italian origin as we have seen (p. 56). No stronger illustration could be given of the duration and ascendency throughout Europe of the Renaissance than the contempt for the old cathedrals, which lasted till the close of the eighteenth century.

The Greek Revival continued to hold this attitude of in-difference and contempt, but it developed, as we have seen, a new school of German literature. In the great revolt of Germany against the ascendency of Bonaparte, which marked the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century, a feeling of national patriotism, cultivated by this literature and by this revolt, began to rise superior to the jealousies which had so far divided and estranged the petty states and principalities of Germany. Proud of their own great authors, musical composers, and men of science, the Germans turned to the study of their own past, and the greatness of this past was found to lie in the period when all Europe had been Germanized and conquered by Germans when the feudal system had developed from Germanic institutions; when Charlemagne had reconsolidated Europe; when the Saxon, Franconian, and Hohenstaufen emperors had been the leaders of their day; when the League of the Hansa had created the commerce and fostered the industries of northeastern Europe.

Thus the German became the first historic student of the long despised period of the Middle Ages. The Greek Revival had given him the consciousness of national existence through its influence on the creation of a national literature. This literature then turned the thoughts of the people to the study of their own history and their own past.

The Gothic Revival was thus as a literary and historic study gathering force in Germany through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Then it burst its national barriers and spread through Europe. France and England, no less than Germany, turned attention to their own medieval past. This movement is especially represented for England by the romances of Sir Walter Scott, which were the first works of English literature to draw attention to the Middle Ages.

All this reacted on the exterior forms of modern art. The cathedrals which the ” Spectator” of Addison had held up to ridicule, which the cultivated Evelyn had stigmatized as “only Gothic,”* which Winckelmann had considered unworthy of notice, and which even Lessing had neglected, were now exalted at the expense of Roman buildings and Greek temples as the models of all modern architectural forms.

Meantime both Renaissance and Greek details continued to hold their own in that traditional use which did not readily yield to the new crusade of the historians and men of letters. The field of church architecture, at least, how-ever, was fully conquered by the Gothic. It would be difficult to specify a church built in Europe or America about or after 185o which did not exhibit the Gothic style.

To this style succeeded copies of the Romanesque* and Italian Gothic. The Romanesque, as being earlier than Gothic, and the Italian Gothic, as more re-mote from the first modern students of the Gothic in northern Europe, had at first attracted less attention. As the knowledge of medieval architecture became wider and more general, these remoter or earlier styles were also drawn upon as models for copy.

Meantime the attention of . historic students and critics veered from an enthusiastic admiration for the beauty of the old monuments to a critical appreciation of their common sense in construction. This appreciation again naturally called attention to the new problems of construction in modern architecture and the inadvisability of thrusting a common-sense ancient mode of construction on a modern building with different requirements and character.

This new point of view was much assisted by the Decorative Art movement which gradually developed in England after the Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851. The leading idea of this movement under its original leaders was to make ornament the emphasis and exponent of construction. This idea had again been evolved principally from the study of the Gothic, but was seen to be equally supported by the principles of the original Greek monuments.

Whereas the Greek Revival had insisted on the constructional use of Greek forms as against the Renaissance, but had continued to regard the classic details as the exclusive models of imitation, the ultimate outcome of the Gothic revival was the tendency to abjure any use of historic style of any period which did not harmonize with the common-sense uses and purposes of the modern time. But it was difficult and impossible to create a modern style out of nothing, with no antecedents and no traditions. Such an out-and-out original creation was never known to history where evolution has always been the mode of change.

In this dilemma between the theories of the professors, who taught that constructive truth was the only standard of taste as applied to form, and the habits of the modern architect, who had never since 1500 done anything but borrow his details from historic styles the ” Italian Gothic” and ” Romanesque,” for the time being, offered an obvious compromise. Both were styles in which the effects of masonry surface had been undisturbed by projecting but-tresses or projecting ” engaged columns.” As far as masonry construction was concerned, here were styles, so-called, which were adapted to any modern building. The decorative details were medieval, instead of classic this was a matter of indifference or of personal taste as long as they were not allowed to determine constructional forms.

In modern “Italian Gothic” and “Romanesque” we have had a compromise between the general dependence of modern architecture on past models, and the reaction against the purely literary and archaeologic imitation of Gothic cathedrals, or the expensive and generally wornout forms of the traditional Renaissance, or the expensive and frequently unnecessary colonnades of the Greeks.

Side by side with this movement and slightly later in time came the so-called “Queen Anne” and “Colonial” styles, which were especially applied to country houses and suburban residences, whereas the Italian Gothic and Romanesque, as exclusively masonry and not timber styles, had been more confined to the cities.

In these last revivals we see partly the swinging back of the pendulum toward the Renaissance under which “Colonial” and “Queen Anne” must be included, but Renaissance of a simpler class, less pretentious, and with details of greater beauty than had survived in the purely traditional forms of brownstone fronts and American government buildings. Recurrence to our remarks on Dutch buildings of the seventeenth century will assist this explanation (p. 104). Otherwise, “Queen Anne” and “Colonial” may be explained as an appreciation of fashion for the picturesque and common-sense construction of the given periods, and both styles, so-called, as well as Italian Gothic and Romanesque, have been convenient cloaks for architects intent on solving modern problems in their own way without caring to make martyrs of themselves by explaining to their patrons that it makes very little difference what old name may be given a modern building. In all these varying currents and eddies of the hour, we can still see in our own country the steady movement of a great nation toward the assertion of its own needs and character and the realization of its own opportunities.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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