The Past Is a Foreign Country; Today We Congratulate Ourselves on Our Multicultural Society-Yet British Architecture Was More Open to Influences from Abroad Two Centuries Ago

By Mount, Harry | New Statesman (1996), October 20, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Past Is a Foreign Country; Today We Congratulate Ourselves on Our Multicultural Society-Yet British Architecture Was More Open to Influences from Abroad Two Centuries Ago


Mount, Harry, New Statesman (1996)


Nowadays, a Norman Foster building in Hong Kong looks just like a Norman Foster building in Canary Wharf- neither British nor Chinese, just nationless steel and glass in both places. Flowever big the modern Chinese economic boom, it has absolutely no stylistic effect on our buildings over here. We congratulate ourselves for being tremendously multicultural these days. Not when it comes to new architecture, we're not. We were much more open to influences from abroad two centuries ago, taking styles from all round the world and modifying them to suit our cool home climate.

  Sequestered among trees, a noble pile, Baronial and colonial in its
  style; Gables and dormer-windows everywhere, And stacks of chimneys
  rising high in air ...
                 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--"Lady Wentworth "(1862)

Longfellow was writing about the house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that had belonged to the British governor Sir Benning Wentworth. In 1760, in a great scandal of the time, 64-year-old Wentworth married his 23-year-old housekeeper, Martha Hilton. When British grandees of Sir Benning's ilk returned home, with or without a young bride, they brought back with them that baronial and colonial style and used it to erect country houses and villas across Britain.

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They also unwittingly started a trickle-down effect: the exotic styles spread from these grand, one-off projects into terraced houses, municipal baths, hotels and theatres throughout the country. While the empire boomed, as it did between the 17th and early 20th centuries, echoes were heard back home on British building sites.

The influence of the Renaissance and the Greek Revival on our classical buildings is obvious enough. What isn't celebrated is the tremendous absorption of more tropical influences into British architecture--Indian verandahs in the Home Counties and Indian bungalows by the seaside, Chinese interiors at Brighton, Moghul temples in Gloucestershire and Egyptian sphinxes opposite Tony Blair's old terraced house in Islington. Once these foreign styles hit our shores, they went through a blending process, producing a peculiarly British version of the original. This exoticism has become so domesticated that we have grown blind to it--today, you can pass a structure such as Alexander "Greek" Thomson's 1859 church in St Vincent Street, Glasgow, and hardly notice that it's not just Greek, it's an internationally unique confection of a Greek portico on an Egyptian foundation, beneath a tower based on a Hindu temple with Assyrian details.

INDIA

It is not surprising that India, the empire's cash machine, had a particularly seismic effect on the decor of returning colonial servants. The first great house influenced by Indian or "Hindoo" -or, strictly speaking, Indo-Saracenic--style was Sezincote (1805-17), in Gloucestershire, built for Sir Charles Cockerell by his brother Samuel Pepys Cockerell, surveyor to the East India Company. (The family had deep colonial roots: another brother, Colonel John Cockerell, had returned from Bengal in 1795 to buy the estate.)

Sezincote is a light and airy skit of a house, but its borrowed details are learned and complicated. Its jigger-jagger arches, minarets, peacock-tail windows, jali-work railings and daringly deep cornices were Moghul outside, Greek Revival within. John Betjeman stayed there in the 1920s with a friend -John Dugdale, whose father owned the house--and wrote about it in Summoned by Bells (1960), his blank-verse autobiography:

  And there they burst on us, the onion domes, Chajjahs and chattris
  made of amber stone ... Stately and strange it stood, the Nabob's
  house, Indian without and coolest Greek within.

Chattris (or chhatris) are the slim minarets on the corners of the building and chajjahs (or chhajjas) projecting cornices with their deep brackets.

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