Reacting to the Industrial Age
Gothic is one of the most enduring revival styles of modern history. In the mid-1800s, England was enraptured with the Gothic style in both art and literature. Popular authors such as Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis thrilled readers with stories about dark and mysterious characters. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, John Polidori wrote The Vampyre, and in 1897 an Irish author, Bram Stoker, published the most famous vampire novel ever, Dracula. In architecture, John Ruskin emphasized the quality of medieval craftsmanship in comparison to industrially produced widgets. In art, a new aesthetic style called Picturesque depicted medieval times as the golden age of art (see Romanticism and Picturesque). There was a keen interest in preserving and renovating medieval architecture.
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin
In Britain, one of the most popular architects was an intense Gothic Revivalist named Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852). Pugin, a passionate gothic revivalist, designed many things besides buildings; he made tiles, metalwork, furniture, wallpaper, stained glass, and ceramics, all dedicated to the style of the Middle Ages. He argued that only members of a good society can make things that are honest and beautiful. He was convinced that the current times were devoid of virtue. He produced drawings that compared towns the same towns as they looked in the mid-1400s to the way they looked during his time in the mid-1800s. He showed how what were once provincial towns with green space, blue skies, and church spires had devolved into gray, smoky, factory-ridden cities. Pugin showed monasteries from medieval times juxtaposed with working-class tenement housing. He presented a crude picture of overdevelopment. He believed that reinstituting Gothic style could correct the ugliness.
Choosing a Style for British Parliament
One of Pugin’s best-known projects was his collaboration on the new Houses of Parliament after the old buildings were destroyed by fire in 1834. There was considerable debate at the time over whether the new Parliament should be built in Classical or Gothic style but, in the end, Gothic prevailed because it was believed to embody the national spirit and Christianity. As well, the basis of the parliamentary system had been established during the Middle Ages so having a building that nodded toward that history provided a link to this fact.
St. Augustine’s Church, Ramsgate
Pugin designed a number of churches and cathedrals around England. He was obsessed with lively and historically correct details. He designed a church in honor of St. Augustine that he donated to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark. The interior was made of ashlar masonry that was carved under his total supervision. He built his own house next door. That house included a crenellated tower, gables, and bay windows. The biggest innovation was large open interior space that included both horizontal and vertical lines. This feature was widely influential; you can especially see it in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.
Features of Gothic Revival
Reminiscent of medieval style
Ornate corner gables
Gargoyles and spires as ornamentation
Strong vertical lines that give a sense of great height
Pointed arch windows
Inspiration from Medieval Security Systems
One medieval innovation that inspired some features in Gothic Revival architecture was the battlement. A battlement involved a parapet or low wall—about chest or head height—with squared notches cut out of the stone at regular intervals. These gaps were called crenels and they allowed for someone to fire an arrow or other ammunition through them. In the Gothic Revival style, of course, battlements were purely decorative.
Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942) led the Gothic Revival in America, which was initially reserved mostly for churches and home residences. Often it was used in rural settings because the features were difficult to squeeze into tight city lots. Wood and timber was abundant in the United States so they became a popular alternative to stone as building materials. In the northeast, Gothic Revival homes were built with wood frames, which inspired the term Carpenter Gothic. These homes featured steeply pitched roofs and pointed arch windows, which drew the design even further upright. Often such a home might have a number of gables. They were quaint and plain and mostly unadorned (the style was exemplified in the famous Grant Wood painting, American Gothic). The only ornamentation was intricate pieces of carved molding that lined the roofs and porches, like the lace found on gingerbread. The look came together as intimate and charming, in stark contrast to the strong and pious stone churches most typical of the Gothic Revival movement.
The Steam-Powered Scroll Saw
The invention of the steam-powered scroll saw in the nineteenth century allowed for mass production of detailed and intricate pieces of molding that appeared on Carpenter Gothic structures. The ability to mass produce the most ornate feature on these homes helped to keep the prices low. These houses, in turn, appealed to people at all levels of society.
In the twentieth century, Gothic Revival style was considered impractical. The popularity of functionalism and the availability of new building materials caused it to fade.