Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community, C. 1500-1640

Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community, C. 1500-1640

Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community, C. 1500-1640

Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community, C. 1500-1640


The town hall in early modern England was the seat of civic government and the architectural embodiment of power, authority, and legitimacy in the community. Robert Tittler's imaginatively conceived and wide-ranging study, based on extensive research in local records, explores the town halland its role in civic culture and urban life. The multi-disciplinary approach of Architecture and Power generates architectural, anthropological, literary, and historical insights into politics and society in England's provincial towns in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Professor Tittler explores the connection between the boomin town hall building in this period and the cultural and political evolution of the provincial urban community. From the function of decorations and furnishings to the political activities and self-image of the urban elite, every aspect of the town hall and its place in civic culture is rigorouslyexamined. This is a fascinating and scholarly contribution to the urban history of England.


Something valuable has been lost in the movement of professional historians away from the physical evidence of the past. For all its obvious virtues, our near exclusive preoccupation with written or spoken sources has overwhelmed a consciousness of the physical record, the built environment of past societies, which was so central to the likes of Gibbon, Burckhardt, and Henry Adams. What each of these worthies saw in the physical record of Rome, Florence, and Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres respectively could only in part have been reconstructed or inferred from the written document. This is a perspective which many contemporary historical studies neglect at their peril for, as the architectural historian and theorist Sigfried Giedion has noted,

Everything in [architecture], from its fondness for certain shapes to the approaches to specific building problems…reflects the conditions of the age from which it springs. It is the product of all sorts of factors—social, economic, scientific, technical, ethnological. However much a period may disguise itself, its real nature will show through in its architecture.

Of course this study does not endorse a return to those earlier epochs of historical enquiry nor, just as obviously, does it suggest that we abandon the prime reliance on the written record upon which the historical discipline rests. It does, however, hope to re-emphasize the importance of the built environment, and perhaps to support some recent efforts to move the mainstream of historical investigation at least of some issues back toward such considerations. It aims to do this not with references to the grand epochs which lured Gibbon et al n and which one could not approach in quite the same manner today, but rather in regard to the much more manageable microcosm of the local community. Indeed, if the

Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture, the Growth of a New Tradition, 5th edn.
(Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 19. the concept is not only Burckhardtian in tone but also in descent. As
he tells us elsewhere (p. 2), Giedion studied under and considers himself a disciple of Burckhardt's
pupil Heinrich Wolfflin. Other particularly helpful observations on the historiographic traditions
linking history and art history or architecture may be found in Donald J. Olsen, The City as a Work of
Art, London, Paris, Vienna
(New Haven, Conn. 1986) and the earlier formulation of Olsen's view in his
'The City as a Work of Art', in Derek Fraser and Anthony Sutcliffe (eds.), The Pursuit of Urban History
(1983), 264–85. See also John Gloag, The Architectural Interpretation of History (New York, 1975) esp.
ch. 1.

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