Edward Gillin on Scientific Knowledge and Architecture in an Age of Reform

The place and value of science in Britain during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, presents a fascinating paradox. It is very hard to talk of a single idea of science at this time, but empirical and experimental approaches to natural philosophy carried troublesome political connotations. Science, after all, was something eagerly promoted in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, with state schemes to measure the Earth and decimalize measurement especially celebrated. By the 1820s, natural philosophy remained a difficult proposition. Geology, chemistry, phrenology, and astronomy could all be used to suggest a materialistic, Godless, universe. Yet at the same time, new knowledge of nature, theologically informed, was seen as something which could sure-up and secure existing social and economic order. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the works of William Whewell, John Herschel, and Mary Somerville during the 1830s.

This complicated relationship between science and society had architectural ramifications. Through buildings to display scientific knowledge, new forms of construction and materials, and interpretations over how different styles represented nature, architecture engendered these tensions over science. In my own work, I have explored how natural philosophers, architects, experimentalists, politicians, and engineers, all sought to rebuild the new Houses of Parliament as a great work of science. They wanted to mobilize the latest knowledge to provide the nation with a fitting new Gothic legislature. Geologists Henry De la Beche and William Smith selected stone for the building’s exterior. The Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy, and mathematician Edmund Beckett Denison, worked to produce a clock and time system of unparalleled accuracy to control government business. Scottish experimentalist David Boswell Reid worked to chemically control Parliament’s atmosphere, while the Cornish engineer, Goldsworthy Gurney, laboured to introduce glorious gas illumination for Lords and Commoners alike.

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The construction of Charles Barry’s new Palace of Westminster followed the destruction of the original Parliament’s destruction in a fire in 1834. It was therefore built at the end of Britain’s ‘Age of Reform’ (c.1760-1840). Indeed, the 1832 Great Reform Act was perhaps the zenith of Britain’s reform legislation, which included Catholic emancipation in 1829, the end of slavery in 1833, municipal corporation reform in 1835, and a series of free trade moves which culminated in the abolition of the corn laws in 1846. The new Parliament’s architecture, therefore, reflected a rapidly reforming state and changing society. The place of science within this society was uncertain, but central.

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Britain’s new Parliament embodied the nation’s tensions between tradition and progress. It represented a romanticised, agrarian, Christian people, but also a rapidly urbanizing and industrial country. A Gothic, medieval fantasy, it was also an assertion of modernity and a claim to how society should employ science and trust new knowledge.

The forthcoming AHRC project, Architecture and Society in an Age of Reform, provides an exciting chance to explore some of these themes in the years before Barry’s work at Westminster. While the relationship between architecture, society, and knowledge is only one subject of interest within this incredibly rich and exciting period, it is one which I think is enormously promising. In many ways, architecture was the most prominent and publically visible manifestation of a society’s use of knowledge. Its investigation offers new understandings of the tensions between radical and conservative architecture, and provides lessons over how architects and philosophers worked to reform and reimagine society.  How the forthcoming discussions explore this is something which I, for one, am eagerly awaiting.

Dr Edward Gillin is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, working in the history of the science of sound in the nineteenth century. His DPhil (University of Oxford) examined the relationship between science and architecture at Parliament during the mid-nineteenth century. This should be out as a monograph in October 2017, published by Cambridge University Press, entitled The Victorian Palace of Science.

Markian Prokopovych on The Habsburgs, Architecture and Social Reform

How can imperial patronage influence architectural development and social change more generally? The history of the Habsburgs’ involvement in architecture and urban planning across the vast regions of the empire provides an interesting illustration. One of the aspects of my work on the history of Lemberg (also known as Lwow, Lvov and Lviv due to its multinational composition), an important provincial capital of the Habsburg Empire is the revision of the Habsburg role in the modernisation of the region.

Panorama of Lemberg by Lestat (Jan Mehlich) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of the long nineteenth century, Lemberg changed from a decaying Baroque town to a booming modern metropolis. Imperial control, funding and patronage played an important role in this transformation. The first decades after the annexation of Lemberg in the First Partition of Poland in 1772 in particular coincided with Neo-Absolutist reforms that had far-reaching consequences in all spheres of government, society and everyday life. Emperor Joseph II’s keen interest in the new province and its capital city provided for the economic and urban development that would outlive the years of reaction following his death in 1790. All public construction in the first half of the nineteenth century was not only pending upon the approval from the Royal Chancellery in Vienna, but also contingent on central funding and personal resources. Due to the circulation of cadre involved in construction across the empire, architectural designs and constructed buildings became much more alike. As Lemberg’s historic centre became surrounded by broad boulevards that had replaced the derelict city walls, here, too, the new Town Hall, the Governor’s Palace, the theatre and the Polish Library displayed that distinctive touch of austere Viennese Neoclassicism.

Through such reforms, the functionaries of the new imperial state aimed, as they put it, at turning local ‘Sarmatian beasts into men’. Irrespective of the arrogance that such attitudes entailed, the transformation of Lemberg’s public spaces in just over a few decades had indeed been spectacular. It is reported in government correspondence, memoirs and other personal accounts of administrative functionaries, theatre directors and travellers and is also apparent in visual material such as the paintings of city views that became particularly popular in the mid-nineteenth century. There is all evidence to suggest that both the newcomers and the locals had learned the new ways of living their city. This, however, did not mean they all necessarily accepted the aesthetic system of coordinates of an average imperial clerk or building engineer. Polish city guides that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century would be merciless about the dull, ‘barrack-like’ architecture that Vienna brought to Lemberg. However, as they walked the new streets lined with simple Neoclassical facades that replaced the former palaces of Renaissance and Baroque glory, some denizens of the city probably also wondered about the efficiency of other imperial reforms.

Karol Auer, View of Lemberg's main boulevard, 1830
Karol Auer, View of Lemberg’s main boulevard, 1830

Of course, the way the empire shaped urban spaces and their use through architectural innovation did not stop in the middle of the nineteenth century but continued until the collapse of the empire in 1918, and in many respects even beyond that date. Some of the changes that Vienna initiated in Lemberg and other provincial capitals at the turn of the nineteenth century foreshadowed those implemented later in the imperial capital. Looking at how architecture was regulated and used in those cities can tell us not only how their users felt about it but what they and others thought about the imperial state.

Dr Markian Prokopovych is a Leverhulme Research Fellow in the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham working on Central and Eastern European cultural history in the long nineteenth century. His book Habsburg Lemberg: Architecture, Public Space and Politics in the Galician Capital, 1772-1914 (Purdue University Press, 2009) deals with several issues pertient to our project’s agenda, such as user experience (through research on diaries, letter correspondence, travelbooks and memoirs), government and private funding and patronage, and the political uses of style (especially Neoclassicism) in the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Habsburg Empire.