Imperial exotic: early iron buildings for export

18 01 2013

In Victorian Britain, iron buildings were being exported all over the world, from South America to Australia, demonstrating (and actualising on the ground) the country’s expanding imperial ambitions. The very first buildings for export were made from timber, an early example being a portable hospital sent to a penal colony in Australia in 1790. As the constructive potential of cast and wrought iron began to be developed in structures such as bridges, mills and warehouses, so timber was gradually substituted for iron in many buildings for export. By mid-century, the manufacture of prefabricated iron buildings for the colonies had become a commercial enterprise, with houses, churches, hospitals, warehouses and factories exported in large numbers by specialised iron founders like Samuel Hemming, Edward T. Bellhouse, Richard Walker, John Porter and Charles D. Young.

1. 'Iron palace of King Eyambo', Illustrated London News, 1843

1. ‘Iron palace of King Eyambo’, Illustrated London News, 1843

The majority of these early prefabricated iron buildings were utilitarian in design, such as William Laycock’s iron palace for King Eyambo in British West Africa (1), which was erected in 1843 and opened for public exhibition in Liverpool before being exported. Widely reported in both local and national newspapers, this building exemplified a utilitarian ‘rational style’ in iron, although its metal plates and panels of were here mounted over a wooden skeleton. The Illustrated London News celebrated the iron palace as a rare example of the principles of construction dictating style, the reverse being the ‘prevailing view‘ in most early Victorian buildings.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

However, this appreciation of unadorned utilitarianism in iron construction was short-lived, particularly after the construction of the so-called ‘Brompton Boilers’ in 1856 (2), which were actually temporary buildings for the South Kensington Museum, designed and manufactured in Scotland by Charles D. Young. Consisting of a long rectangular iron covered by three elliptical roofs clad in corrugated iron, the building was vilified in the building press. In a reversal of the earlier celebratory imperial rhetoric connected with iron buildings like this, The Builder argued that ‘no New Zealander savage would erect such a structure so utterly and indefensibly ugly’. The central problem for The Builder and others was the context of this building: despite being intended as a temporary structure, it was nevertheless expected, as a public building, to symbolise, through ornament, the architectural values of high culture (particularly as it would house a national collection of ornamental art). Thus, its blank walls were ‘offensive’ to The Builder because they symbolised nothing, its arched roofs breaking the rules of architectural decorum by resembling ‘three huge boilers placed side by side’ rather than any recognisable civic building. As if responding to the harsh criticism of his handiwork, the manufacturer Charles D. Young explained in the introduction to his 1856 catalogue that founders like himself were now seeking input from architects in the design of prefabricated buildings to provide ‘greater scope for the display of architectural effect’.

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

One of the first publicly exhibited prefabricated buildings to demonstrate this shift was a bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt (3), designed by the engineer Robert Stephenson and manufactured by the London founder Henry D. Grissell, and erected on the Isle of Dogs in the summer 1858 (but still there in early 1860, its eventual fate unknown). Consisting of a series of ‘comforts and luxuries peculiar to Imperial Oriental life, including baths and divans’, the structure was based on a Greek cross plan with a lofty central dome surrounded by four smaller domes, the whole structure standing on a vast circular platform 120-feet in diameter that was supported over the water by a grid of 60 cast-iron columns. Its ornamentation was described as both ‘Oriental’ and ‘Saracenic’, the exterior elements made up of cast-iron filigree panels picked out with colour, the interior comprising painted glass in the domes, encaustic tiles in the walls and a ‘richly-ornamented chain’ from which the baths were suspended. As The Building News recognised, the kiosk was an effective advertisement for both designer and founder, its cast-iron ornament being ‘amongst the best samples we have seen’. In addition, its Saracenic style articulated what was perceived to be an enlightened imperial relationship between Britain and Egypt. If the kiosk demonstrated ‘the enlightened liberality and cultivated taste’ of the Viceroy of Egypt, it was also, for a time at least, an exotic vision of the orient in the heart of London. As described by The Illustrated London News, ‘if we conceive the brilliancy of an Eastern sun, and the clearness of an Eastern atmosphere, we may imagine the effect of this kiosk glittering with its reflection in the waters of the most classical river in the world’.

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

In the autumn of 1866 another ornamental cast-iron kiosk was erected and displayed in London, this time on the site of the former International Exhibition in South Kensington, in preparation for export to Bombay (4 & 5). Just like its Egyptian predecessor, this kiosk failed to reach its destination, remaining in London until at least until the summer of 1869, apparently a victim of the 1866 international financial crisis. A result of the collaboration between the architect Owen Jones, the engineers Roland Mason Ordish and William Henry Le Feuvre, and the ironfounder Andrew Handyside, the kiosk consisted of an open cast-iron structure with a 10-foot grid of columns joined by ogee-shaped arches and surmounted by a diagonal lattice roof comprised of dozens of arabesque panels. The ornamentation was created by an all-encompassing structural approach only possible with cast iron, with the more utilitarian elements (the bolts in the roof structure and wrought-iron structural girders) ingeniously hidden so as not to compromise the ‘light appearance of the structure’. This subjugation of structure to ornament demonstrates just how much the design of prefabricated iron buildings had changed since the 1840s, this particular example not only being ‘one of the most elaborate examples of ornamental iron work ever seen’ but also serving as an effective advertisement for Handyside’s work and the company’s aesthetic ambitions. Yet, as the illustration in The Builder showed (5), this kind of elaborate orientalist ornamentation was also tailored to its intended geographic and climactic context – an imagined exotic, tropical site in India – and used by an equally exotic Indian aristocracy indulging in luxurious leisure. In this way, this kiosk was not only exporting an exemplar piece of English structural and ornamental ironwork, but a vision of how England imagined the exotic otherworld that it laid claim to.





A seaside icon: the Blackpool Tower

14 11 2011

1. The Blackpool Tower in 2011

By the 1890s, Blackpool was one of the fastest-growing resorts in Britain, with its working-class reputation firmly established. More than any other of its buildings, the Blackpool Tower (1; 1891-94) came to embody the town’s sense of itself as pre-eminently modern. The 500-ft high tower, constructed from a mixture of cast and wrought iron, was inspired by Gustave Eiffel’s tower built in Paris in 1889 and, like its Parisian model, the iron construction of the Tower was essentially structural and utilitarian, the only decorative part being the Tower’s crown (2), a vestige of orientalism that, up close, reveals itself to be a series of unornamented iron beams crudely bolted together.

2. The crown of the Tower

For the Tower’s first visitors, the panoramic view from the platform at the base of the crown, reached by an electric lift, was ‘simply indescribable’ where, on the ground, ‘people look[ed] like fleas’ (3). The lift was one of many other entertainments that were housed between the Tower’s four iron legs, including a circus, ballroom (4), terraced gardens, and promenades, all of which were characterised by exotic decoration in iron (5), terracotta and opulent low-relief tiles (6). The Blackpool Herald focused on the other-worldly ‘atmospheric transformation scene’ that formed part of each circus performance, when a unique flooding mechanism allowed the vast floor of the circus to be filled with water in a matter of minutes, transforming it into an arena for swimming and aquatic displays. Here, then, was a ‘fairy-like’ image of nature controlled by technology, the ‘interface between land and sea … mastered and controlled before the very eyes of the visitor’.

3. View north from the crown of the Tower

4. The Tower ballroom

More than any other seaside building – perhaps even any other building in Britain – the Blackpool Tower has come to symbolise both the town and British seaside experience as a whole. As John Urry has argued, Blackpool’s tower, just like its model in Paris, is no normal spectacle because of the original view it offers of urban space, that is, by turning it into a ‘natural’ landscape. The tower, in a similar way to piers, enables people to see the world as a whole and ‘to celebrate the participation within, and the victory of, human agency over nature’. Going even further, seaside historians have argued that the Blackpool Tower is variously a democratic space, freely available to all; a site of the carnivalesque, that is a complete release from – and reversal of – the norms and conventions of everyday working life; or a utopian symbol of hope for all those who visited Blackpool.

5. Ornamental iron in Jungle Jim's (the former Tower gardens)

6. Exotic tiles and terracotta inside the Tower

Central to all of these interpretations is the view of the tower from afar (7). As documented by the Mass-Observation research group in the 1930s, working-class visitors often described the effect of their first view of the tower from the train journey to Blackpool. It created great excitement, confirmed that you were on holiday and was a sign of the ‘other world’ of pleasure about to be entered where the ‘cotton and factory chimney are finished with’. Just like the Eiffel Tower, the distant view of Blackpool’s tower was what transformed an essentially utilitarian structure into a ornament of the town, the oriental iron crown being the most potent symbol of entering another world, one that reversed the normal associations of the factory chimneys of visitors’ home towns. The fact that the tower is still popular to this day is testament to its enduring symbolic potency, despite the terminal decline of the disciplines of industrial production that fed the desire for release. Yet, the tower’s pleasures – virtually unchanged since it was opened in 1894 – are still defiantly working-class, celebrating a collective experience that is both nostalgic for one generation and exciting and spectacular for another. Like much of what remains of Victorian seaside iron architecture, the tower experience is anathema to middle-class values, with its herded crowds, chaotic business, contrived entertainments and unashamed nostalgia. For this middle-class author, learning to see meaning in the iron tower (and in seaside ironwork in general) was one way in which this resistance can be challenged.

7. The Tower from the beach at low tide





Civic space? The Barton arcade, Manchester

1 04 2011

1: Barton arcade from St Anne's Square

Walter Benjamin recognized in the first arcades of Paris – built at the turn of the 19th century – the beginnings of iron construction that would culminate in the Crystal Palace building of 1851. Yet, arcades also looked backwards as well as forwards: for Benjamin, they were also still rooted in the luxury culture of the 18th century, private worlds that effectively sealed out the social mixing on the street in an artificial environment – a ‘world in miniature’. The early arcades were commercial speculations, built by a single or joint property owners, with the shops lining the arcade leased to individual traders. They were usually narrow spaces, the architectural potential of the iron and glass roofs subordinated to the dictates of economy.

2: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan in The Builder, 25 April 1868

Yet, by the time the Barton arcade was constructed in Manchester in 1871 (1), everything had changed. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapidly-growing industrial cities of Britain embraced the arcade as an essential part of civic improvement. The precedent for this ‘public’ appropriation of the arcade was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, opened in Milan in 1865 and influencing a British audience through the pages of The Builder (2). This monumental arcade was the result of international cooperation; it was financed by a British company, designed by an Italian architect and constructed by a French engineer. Consisting of two wide passages joining beneath an octagonal-based dome 106-ft high, this was an arcade on a colossal scale, richly decorated with frescoes and ornamental cast iron vaulting.

As a new civic space modelled on the Milan Galleria, Manchester’s Barton arcade exhibits its ‘public’ status through its decorative features. Wider than its earlier British counterparts and built on three-levels, the sense of light-filled space is dramatic on entering the arcade via a conventional stone-fronted building (3). The elaborate cresting within the barrel-vaulted glass roof, the lion heads cast onto the shop fronts (4), and the naturalistic foliage seen in the columns and panelling in the exterior of the arcade (5) all contribute to the newfound sense of iron being a material fit for symbolic treatment. Such symbolism was an essential element in Victorian civic architecture, especially in industrial cities like Manchester, whose urban identity was being reconstructed, through high-profile architectural projects, out of its former utilitarian image – a monotonous cityscape of chimneys, vast mills, factories and warehouses.

3: Interior of the Barton arcade, Manchester (1871)

4: Ornamental iron shopfront in the Barton arcade

5: Detail of ornamental cast iron in the exterior of the Barton arcade

The Barton example initiated an arcade craze in Manchester: Victoria buildings (1874) included a vast galleried arcade, as did the Exchange buildings (1876) and a new arcade was constructed in Deansgate in 1899. None of these other examples survive but they are nevertheless testament to the power of the arcade as a symbol of civic status in Britain in the late-19th century. Similar arcade complexes were also built in other cities around the country, including Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds. Together, they represented the transformation of Benjamin’s exclusive ‘world in miniature’ to a democratised covered space in the city accessible to all. Yet, despite the best intentions of their progenitors, arcades were always subject to the dictates of supply and demand; they all served commercial functions and were never financed by public money. As a result, their presumed ‘public’ status was in reality subsumed to ruthless economic dictates. The arcades in Manchester quickly fell victim to this schizophrenic status: at best, they were viewed as too spacious to function as indoor ‘streets'; at worst, as wasteful follies built solely on the basis of speculation that failed to attract either shopkeepers or customers.





The labyrinth as sacred space

11 12 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, Mausoleum, Meknès, 2010 (watercolour on chalk and gouache)

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the only sacred buildings in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims. In the 17th century, Moulay Ismail elevated the city of Meknès to a imperial capital in his 55-year reign from 1672 and built a vast royal palace, enormous fortifications and monumental gates. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history, despite his extreme despotism; his reign was marked by bloody campaigns of pacification, countless grisly deaths and the employment of tens of thousands of slaves to build his vast monuments in Meknès.

Dark space

Light space

By contrast, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is a remarkably peaceful series of spaces, divided into squares. On entering the building through a tiny door, one comes into a dark square room, intricately decorated but barely lit. Ascending a small flight of stairs, you enter into an unroofed space of light, covered in coloured square tiles that one sees in almost every significant Islamic building. Up another flight of stairs, you walk through an almost identical square room, completely bare apart from the mesmerising tiles covering the floor and part of the wall. Ascending more steps into an arcaded room, seemingly lighter again, one eventually enters the mausoleum itself – a square room filled with light, with all surfaces decorated with carving or tiles and, in the centre, a fountain ceaselessly playing its soft watery music.

Lighter space

Heavenly space

This mausoleum represents a simple use of a labyrinth as the guiding spatial principle. The visitor is gently led on a single route through the spaces in an ascending path to the heavens. In contrast to the secular commercial labyrinth of the medina of Fes, this is the sacred labyrinth that directs the pilgrim on a path to enlightenment: a spatial guide from earth to heaven. Its use predates the rise of the monotheistic religions, as indicated in these carvings in Cornwall, which date from the Bronze Age, or around 1500 B.C.E. As if linking continents and cultures across space and time, the carved labyrinth in this isolated Cornish valley is accompanied by contemporary offerings to the gods: words inscribed on slate and coloured fabric and trinkets hanging from the trees.

Bronze Age labyrinth in Rocky Valley, Cornwall

Offerings in the trees near the Bronze Age labyrinth








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