Late 18th Century Architecture (1750-1830)
A Note About Chronology
In the history of architecture, the term "Georgian architecture" is used in most English-speaking countries to describe the set of architectural styles in use between 1720 and 1830. It is named after the first four British monarchs of the House of Hanover - George I (1714-27), George II (1727-60), George III (1760-1820), and George IV (1820-30) - who reigned from August 1714 to June 1830. The term "Regency architecture" denotes a short period of nineteenth century architecture known as the Regency (1811-20), when George IV acted as Regent for his father due to the latter's mental illness. After Georgian comes Victorian architecture (c.1840-1900), based on the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria.
From the era of Renaissance architecture to the final phase of Baroque architecture in the middle of the eighteenth century, most European architects looked to classical designs - especially the buildings of Ancient Rome - as a source of inspiration for their own work. For examples, see: Neoclassical Architecture (1640-1850). But around 1750 a number of significant changes led to the development of new architectural ideas. Advances in historical and archeological knowledge led architects to experiment with new styles and to widen the range of design in various ways.
The buildings of the English architect Sir William Chambers (1723-96) illustrate both the continuing taste for classical forms and the growing interest in exotic styles. In his public buildings Chambers followed classical principles, drawing ideas from Andrea Palladio and the Italians as well as from his contemporaries. In his gardens and garden buildings, however, he turned to more unusual sources. Frequently these buildings - a Greek or Chinese temple or a Gothic ruin - formed part of one garden, creating small focal points which provided a variety of moods within the scheme as a whole.
Such was the case at Kew Gardens in London, where Chambers and others designed a number of buildings to add variety to the landscape. These included a 'Gothic cathedral' and an 'Alhambra' (in the Moslem style) as well as a Roman Triumphal arch. Chambers himself designed the 10-storey Chinese pagoda in Kew Gardens: each of whose levels decreases by one foot (30cm) in height and one foot in diameter.
It was largely in such frivolous building schemes as this that experimentation took place and seeds were sown for a more serious revival of certain historical styles. The 'Gothic' building at Kew Gardens provides one of the early examples of the conscious revival of medieval styles in the eighteenth century. Until the second half of this century, Gothic architecture - although it had not totally died out, since it emerged in the work of Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) and John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) - was considered as rather barbarous. But the 'Gothick taste' became fashionable once more after 1750. In 1753 the first major example of the application of Gothic decoration to a more formal building was begun - Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the home of Horace Walpole the writer, which was famous for its stage-set elegance.
Walpole and a number of his friends, inspired by what they took to be the character of medieval art, produced a series of Gothic designs which were, however, little more than elegant ornament imitating medieval prototypes and applied to the basic structure. Not until the era of Victorian architecture in the next century was the Gothic architectural style copied for both its structural and decorative qualities in the 'Gothic revival'. Similarly revivalist styles of Greek architecture which, alongside the Gothic, became fashionable for garden buildings was not revived in earnest until the nineteenth century. Its features were considered primitive by the eighteenth-century Palladians.
Behind these stylistic experiments in small-scale garden buildings lay a growing interest in the art of landscape gardening, fired by admiration for the work of Andre Le Notre (1613-1700) and others at Versailles Palace, as well as the Italianate landscapes of the French painters Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82). In their landscape painting classical scenes are placed in idealized landscape settings which frequently include ruined temples or castles. English landscape gardeners attempted to create a similar mood in the parks of country houses by incorporating appropriate buildings in their schemes.
The eighteenth century saw a number of phases in landscape garden design; formal geometrical layouts had been superceded by the expansive sweeps of parkland with carefully placed trees and lakes characteristic of Capability Brown (1716-83) and his followers. These in turn had been challenged by the 'Chinese' style of Chambers, who had travelled in China and written a semi-serious treatise on Chinese gardening. (See also: Chinoiserie designs.) Towards the end of the century the emphasis again shifted towards a wilder, more natural form of landscaped garden and these ideas became codified as the "Picturesque style".
In architecture the Picturesque led to the design of buildings of irregular plan intended to harmonize with nature rather than standing in contrast to the landscape as would a regular, symmetrically planned classical building.
The 'Picturesque' was part of a larger European movement which took place in the latter half of the eighteenth century towards a more natural, primitive architecture. For architecture, too, shared in the growth of Romanticism in the arts at this time. In England, it took shape in the search for natural forms: in France, the so-called 'revolutionary architects' developed a pure, idealized style based on geometric forms and abstract ideas about design. The two principal figures of the movement, Etienne-Louis Boullee (1728-99) and Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), produced a number of designs for monumental buildings based on elementary geometric shapes - massive cubes, pyramids, cylinders and even spheres - with the minimum of decorative detail.
Many of Boullée's architectural drawings represent buildings absurdly extravagant for their alleged purpose, and often their shapes are intended to be expressive and symbolic: his design for a cenotaph to Newton is of a huge sphere standing 150 metres (500 ft) high and a project for the entrance to a cemetery takes the form of an enormous flattened pyramid flanked by obelisks. These drawings were intended as statements about the nature and role of architecture - which to Boullee was a 'rational' monumental expression of ideals.
Although none of these schemes was ever built, Boullée's influence as a teacher of the next generation of French architects was profound. A few smaller-scale buildings designed by Ledoux survive: their combination of romantic ideals with reasoned design show the intentions of both architects. His Besancon theatre (1775-84) for example, has a massive cube-shaped exterior with a plain un-pedimented portico, while the interior is semi-circular with a continuous colonnade in a Greek Doric style. His Paris toll houses, designed in the 1780s, incorporate a number of different styles but show his continuing interest in simplifying both structure and detail. Ledoux's simple forms became the distinguishing feature of all the great works of Romantic Classicism built throughout Europe around 1800.
During the lifetimes of Ledoux and Boullée the state of the French exchequer meant that few major public works were undertaken. After 1800, as funds again became available, a series of important public buildings (many glorifying the Emperor Napoleon) appeared in the monumental style of Romantic Classicism. Perhaps the most famous is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (1806-37), a gloriously magnified Imperial Roman triumphal arch designed by Jean-Francois Chalgrin (1739-1811), who himself was greatly influenced by both Boullee and Winckelmann (1717-68).
In Germany the Napoleonic Wars did not impose such a severe restriction on building as they had in France. Many French architects went to work in the German states, and buildings appeared there in a mature form of the Romantic Classical style before 1800.
Among the first of these is the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (1789-93), a gateway in the Greek Doric style (based on the Propylaea on the Acropolis in Athens), designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808), which with its comparative simplicity was to become a favourite feature of Romantic Classicism throughout Europe. The German version of this style reaches a peak in the works of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), notably in the Altes Museum (1824-28), and the Schauspielhaus (1819-21), in Berlin. The effect of these buildings is still essentially classical but many of the features are devised to suit a modern function and are only loosely based on the Greek prototypes.
Romantic classicism took a rather different form in England, where domestic rather than public architecture had traditionally been the area of innovation. The buildings of John Soane (1753-1837), the most original English architect of the period, share many of the characteristics of French Romantic classicism and particularly the taste for simpler forms, but they also owe much to the Picturesque and to Robert Adam's domestic work.
Soane's first major project was the rebuilding of the Bank of England undertaken from 1788 when he was given the Surveyorship. The need for security, especially after the Gordon Riots of 1780, meant that the building had to be surrounded by huge blank walls. Soane's design, however, makes a virtue of this, interspersing the vast expanse of masonry with false windows and making the difficult acute angle formed by two of the walls into a focal point by erecting a semi-circular feature drawn from the Roman temple of Vesta at Tivoli. This corner became known as Tivoli Corner.
The bank's windowless street facades excluded a good deal of light from the main block of offices and Soane was therefore obliged to concentrate his efforts on providing a maximum amount of lighting inside the building; this he did by using shell domes pierced by large areas of glass, through which light flooded down into the interiors. For the interiors, perhaps his finest work, Soane developed a simple decorative style drawn from various classical sources. His free treatment of classical detail shocked the more academic of his contemporaries. The purely decorative windows used at the Bank appear also in Soane's work at Dulwich - the Art Gallery and Mausoleum (1811-14) where they are applied to the otherwise plain exteriors. The masses of the building are thus left to provide the principal visual interest.
Where Soane's style was based on a profound and original understanding of both ancient and medieval architecture, that of his great contemporary and rival John Nash (1752-1835) was superficial. Nevertheless Nash showed an ability to adopt a style appropriate for each of the many types of buildings which he designed.
In his country houses Nash used Gothic - as at Luscombe, Devon (1800) - or, for smaller villas, a style based on Italian farmhouses, while at Brighton in the Royal Pavilion, built for the Prince Regent in 1815-18, Nash experimented with Indian and Oriental features, the latticed arches and onion-shaped domes lending an air of fantasy to the palace. In 1811 Nash designed Blaise Hamlet, near Bristol, made up of nine thatched cottages, each planned differently and carefully laid out to give a casual rural quality.
Nash's major achievements, however, were the great urban planning schemes in London, undertaken (like the Royal Pavilion) with the patronage of the Prince Regent, later to become King George IV. The most significant of these works of planning was the laying out of Regent Street and the surrounding areas to form a route from Regent's Park in the North through the West End to Carlton House (soon after demolished) in the South. The buildings erected along the new streets are in a style in keeping with the trends of Romantic Neoclassical art; the long terraces of houses are treated as single classical compositions, with colonnades running along their whole length, drawn together by a crowning pediment and one continuous cornice.
Instead of following the traditional pattern for such a triumphal route - a straight wide road connecting important points and flanked by public buildings - Nash's Regent Street curves elegantly away from Piccadilly Circus, and terminates in the terraces and crescents sweeping around the Park, itself dotted with artfully hidden villas. Nash's achievement was thus to unite individual units designed according to the principles of Romantic Classicism in a scheme which, in its irregularity, was fundamentally Picturesque.
Here is a selected list of the greatest architects of the late-18th century:
Robert Adam (1728-92)
- Kendleston Hall, Derbyshire (1760-61)
John Nash (1752-1835)
- Blaise Hamlet, Bristol (1810-11)
Sir John Soane (1753-1837)
- Bank of England (1792)
Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806)
- Cathedral of Saint-Germaine, Auxerre
Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808)
- Belvedere Schlosspark, Berlin (1788-90)
Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841)
- Schauspielhaus, Berlin (1819-21)
Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-71)
- Winter Palace (1754-62)
Charles Cameron (1745-1812)
- Pavlovsk Palace, St Petersburg (1782-86)
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
- Virginia State Capitol, Richmond (1788)
William Thornton (1759-1828)
- Library Hall, Philadelphia (1789-90)
Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820)
- Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1799)
Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)
- Tontine Crescent, Boston (1793-94)
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