Ornamental Crises: Architecture and Modern Subjectivity in Victorian Britain

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With the destruction of the Houses of Parliament by fire in 1836 came calls for a new kind of architecture in Britain—one that would, as Charles Eastlake put it, ‘inspire the citizens with loyalty, patriotism, and enterprise’. By the mid-1850s this call had amplified, with architects insisting that architecture in Britain not only reform but become ‘modern’.

The term ‘modern’ had specific connotations for Victorian architects, not only as a means of distancing contemporary practise from what many considered to be the vacuous inanity of pre-industrial tradition, but also to signify a type of architecture enabled by industrial technology. As Britain had changed so radically by 1850—in terms of population size, industrial development, and global power—many were demanding that this be reflected in its architecture. Something of a crisis had arisen; ornament was suddenly no longer about taste and refinement but invigorated with notions of purpose, character, and identity.

Inspired by the literary and religious sensibilities of the age, architecture was now encumbered with a sense of moral agency—buildings were, as Ruskin had famously quipped, ‘sermons in stone’. Ornament was considered central to this agenda. In ‘speaking’ through decoration, architecture could impart ‘lessons’. But this decoration needed to be ‘phonetic’, G. G. Scott insisted—that is, ‘factual’ rather than esoteric or ‘sentimental’ (i.e., allegorical). Only an architecture that ‘spoke’ directly to its age could be truly ‘modern’.

This paper will unpack the enunciative and didactic capacities that lay at the heart of attitudes towards the ‘new ornament’ in Victorian architecture, couching these in relation to perceptions of the ‘modern’ and modernity in the Victorian imagination. It will consider how this change in attitude occurred, and argue that, in Britain at least, modernity in architecture was a form of political economy concerned with the paternalist democratization of ornament.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2016
EventEAHN Forth International Meeting - Dublin Castle, Dublin, Ireland
Duration: 1 Jun 20165 Jun 2016


ConferenceEAHN Forth International Meeting


  • architecture
  • history
  • VIctorian
  • Britain
  • ornament
  • communication
  • representation


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