My first series Lost Hamilton Landmarks though fictional, began with the memory of buildings in and around the Hamilton area. Landmarks of Industrial Britain on the other hand, was an exploration of the archetypes and the architectural history of those Hamilton buildings. Like the earlier series I was more interested in the buildings that did not exist, yet conceivably should have or could have.
It has always been true in the past that architecture, as a physical representation of the state, has been used to define the power of a state. Even recently, this was the reasoning behind the attack on NYC’s Twin Towers. If the Arc de Triomphe could define Revolutionary France, or the Empire State Building, the United Sates, then where is the monumental architecture of Victorian Britain, the largest industrial and military power in the world at that time, ruler of 1/4 of the earth’s landmass. Where Etienne Boullee, or Albert Speer envisioned gigantic communal spaces designed to embody the homeland, there is little in way of a British equivalent. One obstacle would certainly have been the upper echelons of British social structure. Already challenged by economic changes wrought by the industrial revolution, even more, they feared the explosive social and political repercussions of a British styled French Revolution and therefore opposed any project that might seem to recognize the the common Briton. Ironically, the bitter struggle between authorities and labourers led Karl Marx to the belief that Britain would be home to world’s first successful worker’s revolution.
While Britain, through archeological expeditions to Greece, popularized Neo-classicism ( there are many examples of residential and commercial Neo-classically influenced buildings ) there are few examples of large public buildings in that style. But there are some exceptions. The British Museum is one. And also the Reading Room, located in the court of the British Museum. The dome of the Reading Room was the world’s largest dome at the time of its construction in 1854. John Soane’s Bank of England is another. An extremely impressive though largely commercial building, later destroyed. And perhaps the most striking example was Liverpool’s St. Georges Hall constructed in 1854. Labelled one of the finest and largest Neo-classical buildings in Europe, it almost happened by chance, as the architect on his own initiative gathered a number of smaller separate projects into one large impressive plan. The decision to build reflected the growing importance of Liverpool as a wealthy industrial port and trading city. It can be seen that almost all projects constructed at this time were initiated for the benefit of an new elevated class of Britons with wealth connected to trade and industry.
Greek archetypes in larger public buildings had uncomfortable connotations of republicanism and democracy. In 1866 Britain was not a democracy - less than 5% of the population was eligible to vote. The new Houses of Parliament, for example, were Neo-gothic structures symbolic of Britain’s medieval structured class system. The few large buildings that did exist did not reference some comprehensive idea of the British people. We really don’t see truly monumental civic building ’til some 50 years later. Under a Labour government and public ownership the landmark Battersea Power Station (voted by Londoner’s as the city’s most beautiful building) started construction in the 1920’s when the Empire was actually well past its prime. Around the same time, Edwin Lutyens, using similar simplified Neo-classical themes, was commissioned to build a massive church (the 2nd largest church in the world ) dedicated to poor working class Catholics in Liverpool. Inflation and war interrupted construction and unfortunately only the foundation was completed.
In this early part of the 20th C. some of the most impressive “British” buildings, and those with larger civic symbolisms, are in fact not located in Britain. Like its ancient Roman counterpart, the Empire is represented by some of it’s most notable buildings in far flung colonies or even other countries. Edwin Lutyen’s imposing interpretation of the triumphal arch, the Thiepval Memorial in France, has been called the greatest British work of monumental architecture in the 20th C. A similar use of mass and restrained classicism marks his sprawling Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, the new colonial Indian seat of government. In Canada, an independent member of the Empire, Canadian projects routinely rated themselves in relation to the Empire. The Royal York Hotel in Toronto, championed itself as the tallest building in the British Empire on its completion in 1929. Two years earlier, the austere Roman influenced Union Station, the largest train station in the Empire was officially opened by Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII.
One of the dominant themes for my work is the broad Neo-classical architectural language. By suggesting Greek and Roman prototypes ( eg. Railway stations modelled on baths or city halls on temples ) Neo -classicism has significantly imprinted 19th and 20thC. western culture. Drawing on utopian an inherently conflicted underpinnings, Neo-classicism was seen to be at the leading edge of social revolution ( promoting “natural” ideals such as democracy, as embodied in the classical Greek city state). At the same time, in apparent contradiction, Neo-classicism was the totalitarian vehicle of state power. Its references in this regard were essentially Roman- appealing to imperial authority and to the instinctual desires for permanence and stability, security, sense of place, or even to the desire for the guidance of a leader.
In summary, I wanted to suggest the architectural Britain that could have been, a British alternative to Boulee’s visionary France, but one with the wealth, resources, technology and skilled labour to make it real.
There are several significant differences between this series and the earlier Lost Hamilton Landmarks. The early series was an entirely analogue film series, with no digital manipulations, while Landmarks of Industrial Britain combines physical models with other digital images. These are then printed with an ink jet printer.