Saturday, 31 July 2021

Empire state, er, buildings

Clive Aslet - Fawley Court

Clive Aslet - Fawley Court

CLIVE ASLET, the editor at large of Country Life, took the Fawley chapel crowd on a masterly and easygoing romp through his latest book, The Age of Empire: Britain’s Imperial Architecture from 1880-1930 (Aurum Press).

Aslet, like his subject, merges the best. In his case the architectural historian styles of the past: Alec Clifton-Taylor, Nikolaus Pevsner, Christopher Hussey and John Betjeman.

In which vein, he searches for and describes the imperialness of British architecture — or rather United Kingdom empire buildings (Belfast City Hall having an honourable mention).

This was the golden zone between Gothic Revival, Barry and Pugin, and the dismal modernism that still pervades.

The starting point for Aslet’s skirmish was Walter Crane’s 1886 map of the Imperial Federation — freedom, fraternity and federation, a marvellous world of the UK, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and a couple of places in West Africa.

Things to notice were exhibitions, pageants, parades, department stores, and hotels. Behold British architectural sculpture and the idiom of big imperial gestures, didactic sculpture (viz Sir Thomas Brock’s Queen Victoria memorial scheme in front of Buckingham Palace), arts and crafts visions, domes, good order, opulence, and the post-WWI apogee in Delhi, with the aesthetic battles between Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) and Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946).

Note too that Baker’s work in South Africa could be argued to be the best ever in the history of architecture.

It would be interesting to ask Aslet’s perspective on Venetian architecture in a maritime colonial and imperial context, on the EU’s Berlyamont enclave in Brussels, and the latest in Olympic Games stadium or museum design — not to mention the behemoth new depots built beside motorways for the likes of Hermes, Amazon, and Tesco.

Review: Rodolph de Salis

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