Gothic Revival Architecture and Law Court Buildings

G.E. Street, who was a pupil of Scott, was a greater enthusiast for medieval architecture (which, with him, as with Pugin, included medieval religion) than even Scott, and an architect of greater force and individuality. He was especially devoted to the early Transitional type of Gothic, and in all his buildings there is apparent the feeling for the solidity and monumental character, and the reticence in the use of ornament, which is characteristic of the Transitional period. His churches are noteworthy for their monumental character; and he had a remarkable faculty for giving an appearance of scale and dignity to the interiors of comparatively small churches. Hence his modern-medieval churches retain their interest more than Scott’s, but in respect of secular architecture his taste was hopelessly medievalized, and his great building, the law courts in London, can only be regarded as a costly failure; it is not even beautiful except in regard to some good detail; it is badly planned; and the one fine interior feature, the great vaulted hall, is rendered useless by not being on the same floor with the courts, so that instead of being a salle des pas perdus it is a desert. Street’s career is a warning how real architectural talent and vigour may be stultified by a sentimental adherence to a past phase of architecture. No modern architect had more fully penetrated the spirit of Gothic architecture, and his nave of Bristol cathedral is as good as genuine medieval work, and might pass for such when time-worn; but that is rather archaeology than architecture.

The competition for the law courts was one of the great architectural events of the middle of the century, and made or raised the reputation even of some of the unsuccessful competitors. Edward Barry (the son of Sir Charles) gained the first place for “plan,” which the advisers of the government had foolishly separated from “design” (as if the plan of a building could be considered apart from the architectural conception!), giving first marks for plan, and second for design. E. Barry therefore had really gained the competition, “design,” which was awarded to Street, counting second; but Street managed to push him out, and it is a nemesis on him for this by no means loyal proceeding that the building he contrived to get entirely into his own hands has served to injure rather than benefit his reputation. William Burges (1827-1881), an ardent devotee of French early Gothic, produced a design in that style, which, though quite unsuitable practically, is a greater evidence of architectural power than is furnished by any of his executed buildings. J.P. Seddon (1828-1906), an old adherent of Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, an architect of genius who never got his opportunity, produced a design which was wildly picturesque in appearance but in reality more practical than might be thought at first sight, and his proposal for a great Record tower for housing official records was a really fine and original idea.

Alfred Waterhouse began his remarkable career as an adherent of the Gothic revival, and merits separate mention inasmuch as he was the only one of the Gothic revivalists who from the first set himself to adapt Gothic to secular uses and to make out of it a modern Gothic manner of his own. His first success was made with the Manchester law courts, a design more purely Gothic than his later works, and an admirably planned building (the only good point in the national law courts plan, the access to the public galleries, is taken from it); his special style was more developed in the Manchester town hall, a building typical both of the defects and merits of his secular Gothic style. This style of his received the compliment, for a good many years, of an immense amount of imitation; in fact, during that earlier period of his work it may be said to have influenced every secular building that was erected in the medieval style all over England. His Gothic detail was, however, not very refined, and he has been subject to the same kind of retrospective injustice which has fallen on Scott, critics in both instances forgetting that what they do not like now was what every one liked then, and could not have enough of. Waterhouse was a master of plan, and a man of immense business and administrative ability, without which he could not have carried out the 434 number of great building schemes which fell into his hands, and he had much more of the qualities of a great architect than are to be found in the works of some of his latter-day critics. His later works, one or two of which will be referred to, do not come under the head of the Gothic revival.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

Public Buildings

Great Britain

There has been a great movement for building town halls; towns rather vying with each other in this way. Of late nearly all of these have been carried out in some variety of free classic. Among the more important in point of scale is that of Sheffield, by E.W. Mountford (1856-1908) (fig. 102); among smaller ones, those of Oxford, by H.T. Hare (fig. 103); and Colchester, by John Belcher, are particularly good examples of recent architecture of this class, the former distinguished also by an exceptionally good plan. The merit of excellent planning also belongs to Aston Webb and Ingress Bell’s Birmingham law courts, one of the modern terra-cotta buildings of somewhat too florid detail, though picturesque as a whole. Among public halls the M‘Ewan Hall at Edinburgh, completed in 1898 from the designs of Sir Rowand Anderson, deserves mention as one of the most original and most carefully designed of recent buildings in Great Britain.


Hamburg has had its new municipal buildings (Grotjan), a florid Renaissance building with a central tower, showing in its general effect and grouping a good deal of Gothic feeling Mention may also be made of the Imperial law courts (Reichsgerichtsgebaude) at Leipzig, designed by Ludwig Hoffmann (b. 1852) and finished in 1895, a building with no more charm about it, externally, than the Berlin Parliament Houses, but with some good interior effects.


No modern building on the European continent is more remarkable than the Brussels law courts (Plate XI., fig. 121) from the designs of Joseph Poelaert (1816-1879), an original genius in architecture, who had the good fortune to be appreciated and given a free hand by his government. The design is based on classic architecture, but with a treatment so completely individual as to remove it almost entirely from the category of imitative or revival architecture; somewhat fantastic it may be, but as an original architectural creation it stands almost alone among modern public buildings.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

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