From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
William Burges was broadcast on the 4th June 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Imagine the architect of your new house insisting that you build it in a style that was fashionable six hundred years ago. That’s precisely what was happening in nineteenth century Britain in what was called the Battle of the Styles. It was an attempt to establish an architectural look that reflected the character of the nation and it became normal for architects to design everything from factories to pubs in either a Classical or a Gothic style.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone who walked past Tower House in London’s Holland Park ever thought it was entirely normal, even in the 1870s when it was built. It’s the work of William Burges, an architect whose output was small but significant, and it represents a high point in the Gothic Revival. The façade of the tall, red-brick house with its stone-mullioned windows is dominated by a dramatic conical tower, the sort you imagine Rapunzel imprisoned within. It contains a winding staircase that leads up through this quite remarkable house. For every room is decorated in the most flamboyant medieval style, with mosaics, frescoes and carvings adorning each and every surface. Nothing is left untouched. Each room has a theme so that allegorical figures of Love or Literature drape themselves across grand fireplaces or glow brilliantly in stained glass windows. This is everything that minimalism is not.
Burges was an avid follower of the French architect and writer Viollet-le-Duc who wrote the sizeable Dictionary of French Architecture in the 1850s, which extolled the virtues of Gothic engineering and ornamentation. Burges appears to have swallowed the book whole because all of his work, from the thrusting pinnacles of Cork cathedral to his lavish plan for London’s new Law Courts has a look of 13th century medieval France. The Law Courts scheme, for instance, sits like a French stronghold right in the middle of London, anchored by a huge tower that would provide a fire-resistant repository for the court records. It wasn’t built but George Edmund Street’s plan which was has a similar feel, showing that Burges was just one of many who were sold on the Gothic look. It helped that Sir Charles Barry’s Palace of Westminster of the 1830s was a neo-Gothic fantasy of carved stone with richly ornamented if somewhat dour interiors by Pugin. What Burges had was exuberance, and his buildings and their interiors have an intoxicating extravagance. It’s why Lord Bute, whose family made its fortune exporting coal from their mines in South Wales, turned to Burges to transform Cardiff’s crumbling castle into a medieval marvel. Its opulence rivals that of King Ludwig’s stupendous Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria of the same period although on a smaller scale. Both showed how reinventing the past meant you could live like a king in a fairy-tale, even if you were an actual king.
Tower House was Burges’s own home although he lived there only three years before breathing his last in a room decorated with mermaids and ocean waves. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of architecture as an absurdity catering to the whimsy of the very rich. But the Gothic Revival reflected the fear of losing traditional crafts and identity as the world became more industrialised. That search for national identify is still relevant as cities today become ever more homogenous. Tower House has always appealed to those whose heightened lives require a heightened environment, home now to a famous rock musician. So if you’re considering an architect-designed house, you might deliberate on whether you, too, want a room dedicated to the Principles of Speech or the Four Seasons. And if not, why not? Tower House reminds us that we can sometimes have exactly what we want, whatever the style.
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