The Architecture of Provincial Cities

In studying the architecture of a particular city it is important to address the issue of distinctiveness and how this can be determined. The nineteenth century was a transitional phase in British architecture. The output of the High Victorian period (c.1

Keywords: British architecture, High Victorian, Greek Revival, Newcastle, Ruskinian Gothic, Manchester, provincial cities, provincial architecture, Queen Anne, Birmingham, Gordon E. Cherry

In studying the architecture of a particular city it is important to address the issue of distinctiveness and how this can be determined. The nineteenth century was a transitional phase in British architecture. The output of the High Victorian period (c.1850-1870) had been confident and strident; Britain’s economy was buoyant and the spirit of Muscular Christianity provided a tremendous moral conviction. By 1870 this certainty was coming to an end. Dogmatic approaches to Neo-Classicism and the Gothic Revival were disintegrating and there was a proliferation of new styles. Newcastle drew on the same stylistic pool as other cities, but individual styles were manifested in different ways. Manchester had a strong Greek Revival tradition that was established in the 1830s, but Gothic and Italianate styles became increasingly important. Ruskinian Gothic was introduced by Waterhouse in the 1850s and became a major strand in Manchester’s Victorian architecture, growing in strength in the 1880s. In the corresponding period, Newcastle tended to avoid secular Gothic architecture and instead pursued North European Renaissance styles. Likewise, the Queen Anne style was not popular in central Manchester, but flourished in Newcastle and South Shields.

Newcastle architecture was distinctive in some respects. One aspect of the city’s specificity is its topography, the dramatic contrasts in level which produce sublime effects. To a large extent, Newcastle’s architecture has been tailored to its geography, as can be seen from the soaring buildings on Dean Street and the bridges that vault over the Tyne. Likewise, Newcastle’s street patterns have been shaped by its ancient streams or ‘denes.’ Newcastle architecture was further distinguished by materials. The local building stone is a honey-coloured sandstone; this represents the basic fabric of Newcastle’s architecture and it underscores all differences and continuities of style. The stone lends itself to a monumentality and austerity which are deemed appropriate for the harsh northern climate and the supposed hardiness of the people. This quality is readily associated with Newcastle’s Classical architecture, but can also be observed in Gothic buildings. Thus, it is in its building materials that the specific character of Newcastle architecture lies.

In his study of Birmingham, Gordon E. Cherry states, ‘It is usually argued that industrial cities are very similar.’ On the surface, this seems to be a valid judgement, since industrial cities have followed broadly similar patterns of development. However, conclusions inevitably depend upon the methodologies employed and the level at which analysis takes place: ‘It can equally be asserted that industrial cities are very different, and with a deeper penetration of analysis, the more this is seen to be so.’ Cherry produced a ‘city portrait’ of Birmingham, a penetrating analysis that brings into focus ‘a place and community which is distinctive, very different from other cities with which it might be compared, its character emergent over time, structured from the warp and weft of social and economic change, and articulated through its institutions and political processes.’ Cherry outlines how the genius loci of a city is formed from the complex interaction between geography, economic forces, political history and town planning. When studying a given city, architectural historians should provide a similar portrait of the city, surveying the formative elements of its genius loci. They should examine the changing urban form and spatial patterns, asking how these interact with local economic forces, personalities and the interplay of power structures, as well as external influences.

Manchester Town Hall

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Francois Hagnere
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Posted on Aug 12, 2010