Function Follows Fantasy
There has been, on a well-known site which I may or may not have a feed on, an interesting 140-character debate between various architects and critics on the merits of Tower Bridge. Well-known Venturite architect comments on the curious puritanism of the common critiques of this gigantic castle on the Thames - terms like sham, pastiche, faux, and the general belief that there is something wrong with fantasy and illusion in architecture. These are all very good points, and there is something enormously knee-jerk about the dismissal of these sort of Victorian (ooh I almost wrote 'monstrosities') structures. The problem for me, though, is what kind of fantasy something like Tower Bridge represents. By encasing its then extremely advanced technology in twin turrets slathered in ickily Mad King Ludwig detail, Tower Bridge's fantasy doesn't seem like something genuinely fantastical or surprising, but as a sort of built emblem of what happened to British capitalism in the closing decades of the 19th century. That is, the collective, cross-class consensual hallucination that the most urbanised, most technologically advanced country in the world was actually a sleepy, rural backwater, one where 'an Englishman's home is his castle', and where a nation which then oppressed a large chunk of the globe was imagined to be mild-mannered, keeping itself to itself.
This is why Tower Bridge was loathed by socialists and technocrats like H.G Wells, whose own fantasies in War of the Worlds or The Time Machine were designed to wake people up from these supposedly 'typically English' delusions. Wells' fantasies were attempts to outline what a technologised society imposed upon itself a dreamy conservatism and medievalism might create, or might incur - the possible fate of a society where subjects of the Crown presided over an unprecedented mechanical pandaemonium. Wells devotes a chunk of the close of Tono-Bungay, his most ferocious indictment of England, to Tower Bridge itself. Although the word 'sham' is used. ‘Again and again in this book I have written of England as a feudal scheme overtaken by fatty degeneration and stupendous accidents of hypertrophy…the vulgarest, most typical exploit of modern England, the sham Gothic carvings to the ironwork of the Tower Bridge. That Tower Bridge is the very balance and conformation of Westminster’s dull pinnacles and tower…Each day one feels that the pressure of commerce and traffic grew insensibly monstrous…this unassailable enormity of traffic…ships bound for the killing of men in unfamiliar lands….’
The passion and moral force of Wells' critique, depoliticised and rationalised, degenerates into the International Style's denunciation of ornaments, shams and fantasies in favour of pure Platonic geometries. Although early works of Modernist criticism - like Siegfried Giedion's stupendous Bauen in Frankreich, a huge influence on Benjamin's Arcades Project - managed to combine a love of the fantastical, science fictional qualities of Victorian engineering alongside a disdain for the fol-de-rol that was added atop these structures, later histories of Modernism remove Victorian engineering from the story almost entirely, except as a brief anecdote, a morality tale about the (undoubtedly appalling) arrogance of a George Gilbert Scott imagining his railway castle at St Pancras was 'too good for' William Barlow's proto-futurist train shed. Something like Kenneth Frampton's Critical History barely even mentions the likes of Brunel, Stephenson or Shukhov, although both Constructivism and Brutalism - the peaks, for me, of 20th century architecture, as if you didn't know - are completely incomprehensible without them - the now-familiar rewriting of Modernism where Muthesisus or Morris are more important than the Victorian technocrats who were first to find beauty in the machine, an orthodoxy only partly dented by High-Tech and Archigram.
Anyway, this all resonates with some recent reading, a book on the above written in the late Modernist era - a Pelican paperback called Victorian Engineering, of 1970, by one L.T.C Rolt. This describes a wonderful and largely incomprehensible world of paddle shafts, oscillators and cranks, the romance of obsolete machinery, which often becomes a focus for the reactionary fantasies of steampunk, or more interestingly, the joys of Fred Dibnah's TV programmes. But L.T.C is very good on a few overlooked matters. The incredible destructiveness and the huge human toll taken by the construction of the new bridges and tunnels is not glossed over - several fatalities per iron bridge, it would seem, never mind the horrendous body count of the Mines that provided the coal to keep it all running. As to aesthetics, Rolt combines the Modernist line about the dressing-up of technology in 'sham' and 'pastiche' with a class-based twist. He notes that the classical, Gothic or Italianate railway stations were a way of showing that the new world of iron knew its place, was gentlemanly, not intent on upsetting the established order. It also exhibits, in spades, the technocratic misunderstanding of capitalism, something which runs through Modernism in its embryonic form to the high-tech of the last few decades. This comes through in a well-aimed dig at the Gothic revivalists:
'It is ironical that while Pugin and his disciples, inspired by the medieval cathedrals, were devoting themselves to recreating the pure Gothic style, the engineers were building these lofty pagan temples to the god of steam. There can be no question on which was the truer expression of an age dedicated to material progress.'
This is a far weirder statement than it looks at first. It might seem that what is being suggested here is that the railway sheds embodied the true rationalist spirit of the age, of industrial capitalism - but what he actually talks about is Temples to the God of Steam, the 'temples to machinery in the abstract' that Wyndham Lewis would suggest, in 1919's The Caliph's Design, to be the likely saviour of a moribund British architecture. That is, an elevation of technology into a religion, not just a useful, utilitarian means of getting from A to B quickly. This is done more easily in a literal manner, by just adding Gothic to technology, but both are essentially the same process. If anything is to really sum up capitalism, it is (in Brecht's phrase) the 'parade of the Old New', an aesthetic which frequently (if not exclusively) sheathes the shocking and the futuristic in the familiar. It's remarkable how after Modernism a divide between engineering and proper architecture has sometimes returned - Michael Hopkins' Porticullis House/Westminster Station, dominating the Modernist trompe l'oeil tube dungeon with a lumpen, grinning stone castle, is an astounding example. Pure engineering is (as per high-tech) the ideological aesthetic of the part of capitalism that thinks of the system as rational. It isn't, of course - but the fantasies of rationalism, at best, seem more interesting than the fantasies of medieval technology - they show, in a shadowy form, what a rational society might look like, although their disciples may believe them to be the 'truth' of this one. Having said all that, Wilkinson Eyre's bridges might be a bit less tedious if they had a crenellation or two.