This MA Special Option examines the architectural culture of England and Scotland between 1615 and 1815, including texts, prints, drawings, and landscapes as well as buildings from the period. A number can be studied first-hand in the London area: the Whitehall Banqueting House and Sir John Soane’s house-museum, for example, which neatly bracket the period under consideration. Others, like Bedlam Hospital, are long gone, but survive as more or less mythic constructs — and, at the practical level, can be researched thanks to the outstanding archives and drawings and print collections available in London.
Of special interest are the ways in which built form and its visual and textual mediations actively directed Britain’s shifting understandings of its own past — and therefore of its present and future too — during a particularly dynamic, sometimes violent, period in its history. Attitudes to the Gothic, for example, were framed by the collective memory of the targeted architectural destruction of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Classicism might connote either rural retreat and the global-imperial claims which date right back to the beginning of our period. Why did Robert Adam’s Lowlands patrons commission new-built Scottish ‘castles’? John Vanbrugh wondered if it was possible to avoid quotation entirely and arrive at something he called ‘form’ and, like his mentor Christopher Wren and his colleague Nicholas Hawksmoor, questioned the extent to which an architect can be a free modern and still adhere to a patriarchal canon. Robert’s father William Adam and George Dance did the same in relation to a proliferation of new building types. Some, like orphan asylums and penitentiaries, aimed at confining and managing collective social ills; others, like assembly rooms, accommodated new forms of leisure.
How do we begin to think about this culture? The option considers forms of architectural-historical analysis in relation to methodologies within the humanities generally, including ‘turns’ to space, materiality, and memory within the disciplines. Yet architectural history has something to teach, not only the wider academy, but the creators of today’s built environment. Interesting issues are raised by our attempts to ascribe intention, and authors, when dealing with a building, a distinctively collaborative and expensive art form whose creation is often as messy as its reception, and whose life need not end when it is demolished.