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.