Bristol’s ‘Guildhall’ court rooms were designed in the 1840s by Richard Shackleton Pope, to stand on the site of the former medieval Guildhall, within which district court sessions had been held in the St.George Chapel since the 16th Century. Pope designed the new building in the fashionable neo-gothic style, and it is thought to be the earliest gothic-revival civic building in England. The strongly symmetrical design featured a richly carved facade boasting coats of arms, quatre-foils, window tracery and statuary niches, unfolding around a central tower with double storey oriel window, marking out the ceremonial entry to the building. The building was adjoined in the 1860s by Pope’s Assize courts, creating a second Tudor revival facade topped by a monumental tower, creating a dense back-to-back arrangement of courtrooms, judges quarters, jury rooms and cell blocks.
Although the designs of the two facades are quite different, the single authorship gives them a legible family of details that mark them as hereditary relations. In a time of historicist revival, the authoritarian yet democratic function of the county and crown courts made a romantic medieval aesthetic an attractive proposal for the architectural design. The building’s central axis aligning both of the 19th Century towers with the grand Nisi Prius court chamber makes for a striking formal and ceremonial floor plan, and a suitably theatrical backdrop against which the rituals of justice could be recited and observed.
Revivalism has often been identified as beginning during the Renaissance, when artists and academics began the scholarly scrutiny of Roman and Greek antiquity, both in surviving architectural artifacts and in long dormant texts; Alberti and Palladio being amongst the most celebrated exponents. It is interesting to note that even at this stage the preoccupation with history was not without embellishment or romantic exaggeration. The below image shows how Piranesi’s faithful etchings of the Doric temples at Paestum, are in fact given a false perspective to increase the atmospheric drama of the monumental edifices – an early example of sacrificing historical realism in favour of a more stirring and immediate composition.
The unprecedented social and industrial upheaval of the early Victorian years created a strong yearning for the past, or for a hypothetical idyllic rural simplicity of times gone by. This social anxiety was compounded by a vast increase in society’s academic study and understanding of history, and the emergence of a generation of gentlemen antiquarians to collect and exhibit the artefacts of past glories. The liberal redeployment of historical details (be it gothic window tracery, or classical orders of capitals) as symbols was an attempt to co-opt the meanings and values consciously associated with that era – be it honesty and simplicity, or patriotism and power.
David Lowenthal’s book ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’ suggests that revivalism finally stagnated creativity, and that the sheer quantity of historical precedent, and the obsession with authentic scholarship, drowned out any hope of innovation. The artist John Constable claimed that the re-employment of the past created a mimicry devoid of any soul, and that no dead art can be revived anymore than a corpse hope to live and breathe again.
A New Intervention
Planning the adaptation and reuse of a building begins with a thorough interrogation of the surviving architecture in its ‘as found’ condition, as well as a historical study of the site’s construction and evolution, beginning with the structures that may have previously stood there. This establishes the parameters of the building’s significance, be it physical and evidential or cultural and social. However further to this we also like to explore the creative framework within which a historic building was designed, why certain forms or details were proposed and what they were attempting to express. My recent research into the origin of the Victorian neo-gothic revival has been an attempt to understand the mind set of Pope and his contemporaries when they began their design work 150 years ago. How should we design today against the backdrop of this revival mentality; working with a design that is boldly confident, but seemingly borne from an anxious lack of confidence in an original contemporary style? Adapting and re-using the architecture of this revival era is an exceptionally interesting challenge.
A recent project by the Courtauld Institute of Art called ‘Past in Present’ has been researching this same issue across numerous creative disciplines including art, architecture, interior design, sculpture, textiles and ceramics (http://pastinpresent.courtauld.ac.uk). The collaborative project identifies the roots of revivalism, and the movement’s resonance in contemporary fashions for ‘neo-Victoriana’; the reconciliation of a minimalist contemporary aesthetic with a yearning for a more ‘maximalist’ experience of rich textures, bold colours and busy clutter. Reading through the essays on the website I was particularly struck by the following definition: ‘Hybrid – a blending together of two or more distinct things to create something new and different, but with characteristics of both remaining identifiable’.
So what might be the characteristics of Pope’s original revivalist design that we would like to see remain identifiable in a creatively refurbished Guildhall? When considering the Victorian appropriation of all things historical and idyllic (the kind of mentality that would have proposed a Neo-Tudor style for a court house), I often return to this painting by Samuel Palmer from the 1830s. It sums up the romance of that yearning for a simpler life from the past, but with a consciously ethereal and mystical quality to the landscape – like being caught in a lucid dream, aware that what you perceive is not the reality to which you must return. It straddles the line between the optimism and the melancholy that are both inherent in the neo-gothic revival, and presents the balance of both with a beautiful fluidity.
Neo-gothic’s ambitions of romance and escapism are ripe for reinterpretation in today’s architectural language, and given the Guildhall’s brief for conversion into a high-end luxury hotel, it feels like a fitting framework within which to design the contemporary interventions. We are very excited about the idea of reviving a revival, and how Pope’s ceremonial and theatrical pageantry can be best celebrated in the Guildhall’s new future as a top class hotel, and how the atmosphere of Palmer’s evocative retrospection could be applied to a new hybrid design in a dense and historic city-centre urban environment.
Piranesi image courtesy of http://pastinpresent.courtauld.ac.uk