The Tortuous Thread of Tradition

The so-called Gothic Revival is a branch of Historicism, an architecture movement which re-employs styles of the European tradition in modern buildings. Its first examples date back to the mid-Eighteenth century in England, where Gothic-like manors became extremely popular. However, the movement reaches its apex during Victorian Age, when the old Palace of Westminster is destroyed by fire. The old structure had been described by members of Parliament of the time as “crazy” and uncomfortable for any practical use. Indeed, its core was Medieval and unfit to the contemporary use. Augustus Welby Pugin, one of the architects who would design the new edifice, recalls having witnessed the fire with inner satisfaction. He watched the most recent additions to the old building burn and fall to the ground. On the other hand, the old Medieval walls resisted longer and fiercely to the flames.

Westminster Hall, one of the few surviving chambers

Pugin’s words betray a Romantic sensibility. Moreover, they show the growing sensibility of British people to their national tradition. This particularly applies to the Middle Ages, when the Magna Charta Libertatum (1215) set the foundation of the English State. Symbolically, this is a fundamental period, and the first core of national conscience stems from those centuries. When the Parliament established a commission to supervise the construction of a new palace, they thus ordered that this should be Gothic or Elizabethan. Both relate styles to dense historical moments. However, the necessity of incorporating the remaining sections of the old palace, such as Westminster Hall, and the surrounding buildings, among which Westminster Abbey, led to the first alternative.

Westminster Abbey

Charles Barry and Pugin won the competition and started working on the new structure. Indeed, looking at the plant of the new palace, one would hardly suspect that Gothic inspired it. The rooms orderly spread around the aisle connecting the two Hoses of Parliament. This is the spinal axis of the building, both physically and symbolically. In fact, the royal throne in the House of Lords is exactly opposite to the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons. If the doors onto the corridor are opened, the two are visible one from the other. This is a precise reference to the English constitution, according to which the monarch and the Parliament gain mutual legitimation through their collaboration

Plan of the new Palace of Westminster

On the other hand, though, the building is pretty modern and solves the incommodities of its predecessor. The plan follows a rational scheme, it is not a random juxtaposition of rooms. The façade does not look particularly Medieval as well: it is based on the superimposition of three registers of windows, repeated modularly on a long horizontal surface. The tracery decorations and the heraldic symbols carved throughout hinder our eyes. Yet, the structure itself resembles the typical scheme of a Baroque palace, such as Versailles. Indeed, the Gothic Revival’s purpose is not recreating Medieval buildings. Its aim is evoking a Medieval allure, which is cast over the edifice as a patina. Decorations have this function, but a trained eye can easily spot the trick.

Detail of the Western façade

The actual purpose of the palace is reconnecting the Medieval past of the country to its lively present. As the British Parliamentarian system came to life during the Middle Ages, so the palace of Parliament ought to recall its own origins. By this design, the architects aimed at creating a sense of continuity, recalling the foundation of their own country. Therefore, they employ modern techniques of construction, such as iron frameworks or fire-resistant ventilation systems, and they keep this subtle reference on a purely aesthetic basis. Gothic Revival is not a nostalgic attempt to return to the past, the reaction of a bored and tired civilisation to the years of the Industrial Revolution. On the contrary, it is the will to find continuity through tradition, that is to say, the binding material of history itself.


Palace of Westminster

Westminster Hall

Westminster Abbey


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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