Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)

Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), 1840-70, London

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re looking across the River Thames at the Houses of Parliament in London.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] It’s tempting to think that this was built hundreds of years earlier than it was. It was built in the early Victorian era.

Dr. Zucker: [0:17] There was a great fire in 1834 and it burned down the old palace that had been here. There was a competition that was held for designs for a new building. The competition had the stipulation that the new structure had to be designed in one of two historical styles: it had to either be Gothic or it could be Elizabethan, that is, from the time of Shakespeare.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] There was something like 97 entries to the competition and the vast majority were in the Gothic style. That’s why this looks like it was built hundreds of years before. It’s in the style of the Gothic, which dates from the late medieval period.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] The competition was won by an architect whose name is Charles Barry with the assistance of Augustus Pugin, who was responsible for the interior designs as well as the stained glass and some of the exterior decorative forms.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] Pugin was known for his love of the Gothic, for his belief in the Gothic as the right and true moral style of architecture, and also the architecture that was associated with Englishness. This is why the competition stipulated it needed to be Elizabethan or Gothic. We think about the Gothic as French, but in England in the 19th century, the Gothic was English.

Dr. Zucker: [1:36] It raises the issue, why was the 19th century so fascinated with reviving older architectural styles? What was that about? Of course, the reason has to do with industrialization, with the new modern world, and the way that unsettled people.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] The modern era seemed ugly, a period of factories and steam engines. It seemed like there was nothing beautiful about it. When they looked at the past, they saw the beautiful architecture of the Gothic period. They looked at the classical past and they saw beauty. But when they looked around them, they didn’t see beauty. They saw the industrial world.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] This was now a period when you could buy cheaply made goods for the first time. The old systems of handicraft had been replaced. People had moved from the country, where people had learned through apprenticeship traditions of making things, but now things were being produced by factories.

[2:21] It was an unsettling period. It’s natural that people looked back to historical styles, especially a building like this, which was meant to be the seat of government.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] And is still today the seat of government. This is where the House of Commons meets. This is where the House of Lords meets. This building represents the parliamentary system. You’re right, it had to really speak of tradition.

Dr. Zucker: [2:43] It really speaks of a kind of falsehood. This is not the Gothic, it is a modern invention. In fact, the building itself uses quite a number of modern innovations in its constructive techniques. It’s an enormous building on a concrete bed, certainly not a medieval tradition. [It’s] concerned with ventilation.

[3:01] In fact, the central tower was added to the design in order to help support ventilation in the building. This building really is a product of the 19th century.

Dr. Harris: [3:07] Architectural historians call this the Gothic Revival. The Gothic really did stand for a kind of Victorian fantasy, a 19th century fantasy of medieval artisan craftsmanship, of a time of really taking care in making things by hand.

[3:28] We look at this and we just see an architectural style, but it’s a style that’s really associated with very specific values that the Victorians were trying to return to.

Dr. Zucker: [3:39] In fact, Pugin, one of the two architects who worked on this building, published a book called “Contrasts,” which paired the modern and the medieval worlds. The modern world did not come out well. It was a deeply moralizing book that looked at the way in which medieval society was full of moral virtue, but the modern society had squandered that.

[3:58] For example, there was one famous plate that showed the modern city, where the skyline was dominated by factories and smokestacks, versus the medieval city where the landscape was dominated by church steeples. That is, by a reverence for God, a kind of moral center.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] Comparison between a world guided by faith that he imagined was the medieval Gothic world and a world guided by hunger for money. He’s drawing [a] very stark contrast but the Victorians love to do that. They love to compare the old medieval world of faith with the new modern quest for money and fortune.

Dr. Zucker: [4:35] It’s important for us to understand a building like this within that Victorian context. Let’s get back to the building itself. We see this magnificent exterior that just spans the edge of the River Thames. We can see this reference back to the medieval style of the Perpendicular Gothic.

[4:53] In fact, it was very self-consciously based on the chapel of Henry VII, in this late Gothic style that we know as the Perpendicular. That’s just at the east end of Westminster Abbey, which is a building that is just behind this one. Here we can see these large windows and emphasis on the rectilinear, on the vertical, on tracery, and lacework.

Dr. Harris: [5:08] We can see that each window has at its top tracery work that divides the glass up almost like a filigree effect. The architect is really maximizing the window space, and this is a feature of the high Gothic.

Dr. Zucker: [5:22] Barry had traveled extensively and really loved the classical tradition, even though his building here [is] faux Gothic. But if you look closely, you can see Barry’s interest in the classical. Look at the regularity of this façade. Look at the sense of rhythm and balance.

[5:43] It’s really only the exterior decorative forms that refer to the Gothic style, because the building as a whole is laid out with a kind of symmetry, regularity, that is really at odds even with the conception of the Gothic from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the idea of the picturesque, the idea of the organic, the idea of the asymmetrical was so important.

Dr. Harris: [6:04] You could say that this is, in some ways, a classical building with a Gothic skin on it.

Dr. Zucker: [6:05] Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the Houses of Parliament, it’s such an extraordinary example of the 19th century’s concern for historical style.

Dr. Harris: [6:13] And an interest in avoiding confronting the modern.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament)," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed June 20, 2024,