Georgian Society for East Yorkshire

Book Review: Bleak Houses - Disappointment and Failure in Architecture, by Timothy Brittain-Catlin

Horace Field's NER Headquarters, York,  1900-1906.

Horace Field's NER Headquarters, York, 1900-1906.

Saturday, 2nd August 2014

Don't be put off by the title, nor by the chapters headed "Losers" or "Hopelessness", this book is a wittily written book and an entertaining read. Mr Brittain-Catlin explores what is counted as success or failure in the architectural world; a world whose values can very different to those of the general public.

Since the early-nineteenth century architectural writing has been dominated by notions of "morality" and "reality"; these the author attributes to the influence of the Gothic Revivalist, A.W.N.Pugin. Pugin's discourse used the language of its time; but it set a bullying tone which survives in architectural criticism to this day. Contempt for "Sentimentality" on behalf of the architectural establishment has created a gulf between architects and those outside the profession. Sentimentality is fundamental to domesticity; Brittain-Catlin argues that novelists are much better at bringing architecture to life than architectural critics because they attach character and emotion to the houses in their works.

The parts of the book which will be of most interest to members of the Georgian Society for East Yorkshire are those on Horace Field, architect of the huge North Eastern Railway headquarters in York (1900-06). Field was, in the author's terms, a "loser" and a "sissy" architect. He built in the sentimental "Queen Anne" style; loved by the public but soon despised by the architectural profession. Though he built much, his work has been ignored by architectural historians: even the "Pevsner" Buildings of England guide to Buckinghamshire "fails to mention that the branch of Lloyds Bank in the town of Aylesbury is by Field, even though it is the largest and most impressive neoclassical building there".

The book is not lavishly illustrated, but contains some interesting black and white photographs. This book will entertain the general reader. I would particularly recommend it to architecture students and to members or the profession wishing to know why they have lost their connection with the public.

Brittain-Catlin, Timothy. Bleak Houses - Disappointment and Failure in Architecture. London: MIT Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-262-02669-7.

Review by Austen Redman BArch MA. All opinions expressed in this reviews are my own and should not be attributed to the Georgian Society for East Yorkshire.

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