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The Building of England:

How the History of England Has Shaped Our Buildings

Simon Thurley

(London Times)

According to Simon Thurley, the head of English Heritage and former curator of Historic Royal Palaces, architecture and history are indivisible. It is hardly the most startling of aperçus: buildings, more than any other expression of human creativity, are a reflection of their time, for technical reasons as much as artistic or pragmatic — the Normans couldn’t build in steel and glass, but we can.

Despite being a member of the tribe himself, Thurley wants to prise architectural history from the grip of the architectural historians. They are responsible, he believes, for miring buildings in etymology — a web of personal, national and period styles that can leave one splitting hairs over the definition of, say, neo-palladianism or neoclassicism. He wants to put architecture back into the mainstream of history and subscribes to Churchill's aphorism: "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us."

Thurley therefore has written a book that is both a survey of English building and a history primer. He starts in AD410, when the Romans left Britain, and takes the story up to 1939, ducking out of the present architectural age because, he reasons, it is a phase that is not yet over. What emerges is not a tale of ever greater grandeur and progress, but rather "a pendulum of taste swinging from austerity, simplicity and minimalism to ornament, colour and exuberance" and then back again.

He sees the story in two parts: the period up to the late 18th century that, he says, can be explained as a quest to re-create Roman buildings, and the post-1815 period when the defeat of Napoleon left England in an unassailable position of world power. It is a questionable view: our great gothic buildings may have aped Roman monumentality but not its forms, while the city centres of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are proof of the Victorians' love of columns and capitals as much as the iron and glass of the Crystal Palace.

The broad sweep, though, is less interesting here than the details. England’s cathedrals, for example, a national glory, can be traced back to William the Conqueror's religious adviser Lanfranc. The cathedrals were one part of an ecclesiastical building boom aimed at consolidating the Normans’ dominance through spiritual as well as military means. It was Lanfranc who as Archbishop of Canterbury reorganised England into 17 dioceses, each with a new cathedral: 16 were built between 1070 and 1130. Their effect at the time and on succeeding generations was much greater than the other Norman building type, the castle, because most of the 500 castles constructed in roughly the same period were made of timber and have disappeared.

William’s followers meanwhile were offered a choice of ways to atone for killing Englishmen at the Battle of Hastings and afterwards: they could do a day of penance a week or they could sponsor the building of a church. Unsurprisingly, the latter option was the most popular. Although the impetus for these churches and cathedrals was new, they developed existing forms: Durham Cathedral, for instance, married Norman vastness to an Anglo-Saxon love of decoration, while for sheer size William's builders needed to look no further than Edward the Confessor's Westminster Abbey, begun in 1050 and, by the time it was finished 30 years later, the largest church in northern Europe.

Accidents of history account for other significant traits. The dissolution of the monasteries, for instance, led to increased urbanisation because large numbers of the population found themselves no longer tenants of the Church but of the merchant landlords who took over ecclesiastical property in towns and developed it: in York this affected two-thirds of the citizens. While the Great Fire of London in 1666 gave Wren and Hawksmoor the opportunity to decorate the city with their extraordinary inventiveness, it also allowed property developers such as Nicholas Barbon to take the medieval street model of joined houses and upgrade it in brick and thus set the template for the Georgian terrace.

This is an impressive book - for its scholarship, for its easy didacticism, for the care with which Thurley has thought things through, and for its inclusiveness. "A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture," said the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner: Thurley shows that both have a story to tell.

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