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.





Orientalism-on-sea: Brighton’s birdcage bandstand

12 08 2011

1. Brighton's birdcage bandstand from the King's Road

Brighton’s ‘birdcage’ bandstand (1), one of the finest surviving Victorian bandstands, was constructed in 1884 as part of a wider scheme of improvement for the town’s western seafront. The original structure (2) included toilets and changing rooms on the ground floor, accessible from the seafront, and a bandstand or shelter above linked to the King’s Road by a bridge. The entire structure was designed by Brighton Council’s surveyor, Philip Lockwood, who was also responsible for many other iron structures on the town’s seafront, including several shelters and the Madeira terrace and lift on the eastern esplanade. All of these structures, including the bandstand, were manufactured by the Phoenix Foundry in nearby Lewes, and their name can be seen on almost all of Brighton’s ironwork, from the Palace Pier to the railings and lamps that line the seafront.

The extravagant design of the bandstand has been compared to ‘oriental’ buildings such as the Alcazar in Seville or the Alhambra in Granada. Like much seaside architecture of the late-Victorian period, its ‘cake-icing’ decoration (3) reflected its seaside context, where visitors escaped the drudgery of everyday life into a more exotic, exciting and enchanted world. The overtly ‘oriental’ style of the decoration of this bandstand evoked distant lands where pleasure reigned, albeit now presented to the many rather than the few. This direct association with pleasure has given this kind of ironwork a frivolous identity, dismissed by architectural historians as a subject unworthy of serious study.

2. The complete structure showing the toilets below and bandstand above

3. View from inside the bandstand

4. Detail of the bandstand decoration

Yet, Victorian seaside resorts were operating in a cut-throat world of competition for a rapidly exanding but class-divided populations of holidaymakers. Resorts like Brighton developed distinct identities that were fiercely protected by local governments and residents alike. The design of seemingly trivial structures like bandstands came under the sway of powerful notions of place-making, class identity, and visual decorum. Thus, the inclusion of dolphins in the spandrels of the bandstand (4) is no mere decorative whimsy; on the contrary, dolphins were part of Brighton’s civic arms and a long-standing emblem of the town. In this and many other iron structures in Brighton, dolphins reinforce the visual identity of the town that distinguished the town from its many competitors on the south coast. In addition, in relation to the bandstand, nearby wealthy residents in Bedford Square initially voiced objections to the new structure, which they felt would spoil the view of the sea and possibly encourage the congregation of disreputable crowds of lower-class holidaymakers. No doubt the inclusion of toilets in the structure fuelled these anxieties. Lockwood’s design reflects the delicate sensibilities of these socially-superior onlookers – the toilets are invisible from Bedford Square and only accessible from the seafront esplanade below, while the elaborate decoration of the bandstand contributes aesthetic appeal to the sea view rather than detracting from it.

5. Underground lavatories, design no. 61 in the catalogue of the Sun Foundry, Glasgow, c.1890

This sensitivity to social context in the design of the Brighton bandstand is reflected more widely in designs for public toilets in the Victorian period. In an extraordinary series of examples illustrated in an 1890 catalogue of the Sun Foundry in Glasgow, the range of designs for public toilets (over 60) are explicitly related to their intended social contexts. In one example illustrated above (5), the functional part of the lavatory is completely concealed underground and is topped by an ornamental fountain and railings which also act as a ventilator for the toilets. The elaborate disguise of the toilet part of this structure is similar in conception to the Brighton bandstand/toilets; as the accompanying text makes clear, like its Brighton counterpart, this particular example is designed ‘for situations where the erection of ordinary Closets or Urinals might be regarded as detrimental to the amenity of the neighbourhood’.





Victorian bazaars

11 05 2011

The introduction of shopping arcades in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century coincided with another new retail space, the bazaar. More exclusively a building type confined to early-Victorian England, the bazaar, in common with the arcade, collected a variety of traders under one roof and were controlled by a single proprietor. Unlike arcades, bazaars were defined by their spatial openness and by their multifunctional spaces: many also included winter gardens, picture galleries, tea rooms, and other spaces for other popular entertainments, such as dioramas and panoramas. In his Curiosities of London (1867), John Timbs listed nine bazaars in London, the first being the Soho bazaar (1816), but they were adopted in many other towns and cities in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. As their name suggests, bazaars were adapted from the Islamic model of a covered shopping space characterised not by luxury goods but by their variety of trades. Yet, architecturally, they had little in common with their Islamic precedents and were based on a series of courtyards and rooms with skylights, light wells, and multilevel galleries.

The Pantheon Bazaar in 1845

With their emphasis on spatial openness, entertainment and multifunctional spaces, it is not surprising that bazaars, rather than arcades, became the focus of architectural experimentation in early Victorian retail spaces. London’s Pantheon bazaar was built in 1834 by Sydney Smirke inside the existing Pantheon theatre, built in 1812. With its wide, sky-lit, basilica-style hall, rich papier maché ornamentation, and an iron-and-glass aviary ‘ornamented in Saracenic style’, the building evoked wonder to its first visitors. Such ornamental extravagance also characterised bazaars in provincial towns. The Norfolk and Norwich Royal bazaar, built on St Andrew’s Street in Norwich in 1831, included a gallery level that functioned as both a retail and exhibition space and which was supported by ornamental cast-iron columns in the form of palm trees, a decorative embellishment originally employed in the Brighton Pavilion (1815-16). Whilst bazaars did not follow Islamic precedents in terms of their design, the flamboyance of their decoration and inclusion of exotic spaces such as aviaries and winter gardens had direct, if generalised, oriental associations. Palm leaves were equated with distant, exotic lands; aviaries derived from an Indian building type; while ‘Saracenic’ ornament referred more specifically to Islamic motifs such as the horseshoe arch, geometric surface decoration and arabesques.

St James' Bazaar, London, c.1830

The Crystal Palace Bazaar, London, 1858

The most architecturally adventurous bazaar of the Victorian period was the Crystal Palace bazaar (1858). Designed by Owen Jones, this bazaar was conceived as a city-centre complement of the Crystal Palace building, re-erected in the south-London suburbs in 1852-54. Squeezed between buildings fronting London’s most crowded shopping streets – Oxford and Regent Street – the Crystal Palace bazaar had multiple entrances and a spacious interior with a wide hall covered with a vault 36-feet high. In common with Jones’s other retail architecture, the bazaar was characterised by a highly original treatment of iron and glass: the vault was formed from wrought-iron ribs infilled with diamond- and star-shaped coloured glass; and the vault itself was supported on two tiers of ornamental cast-iron columns. In addition, Jones paid careful attention to colour: the interior cast-iron columns were painted light blue, white, and red in their upper sections with dark maroon, light blue and white below, with the abacuses of each column and the gallery railing gilded. The effect, according to The Illustrated London News, was a ‘gem-lighted hall’ with ‘golden and silvery light’ that was even more magical at night when lit by gas lamps.





Dreams in iron: Bolton’s Victorian market hall

18 01 2011

Photograph of the interior of Bolton's market hall, c.1900

In the nineteenth century, market halls transformed the buying and selling of everyday goods. Previously, markets were usually open-air and acquired a reputation for all manner of insalubrious activities, including food riots and fighting between animals such as bears and dogs. In addition, animals were not only sold at market but also slaughtered on site, leading to complaints by more well-to-do residents about bad smells and insanitary practices that they saw emanating from the market. By the early 19th century the old market had assumed much of the social function of the old fairs – many of which had already been closed because they were regarded as centres of wickedness and immorality. They were seen as promoting bad habits – like heavy drinking, poaching and theft. In short, the market was a poorly controlled space, that for middle-class residents, provided a focus for anxieties about disorder and chaos that they saw played out in these spaces.

The new market halls that were built throughout cities and towns in the Victorian period were promoted against the background of these perceptions. Bolton’s new market hall was a relatively early example of the aspirations of civic authorities in promoting a transformed urban environment of buying and selling. Constructed between 1853 and 1856 and designed by the architect G. T. Robinson, Bolton’s market hall was, for many years, one of Britain’s largest – it measured 218 by 300 feet – larger than any railway station from this period. The interior is divided into two nave-like spaces that cross in the centre: a 50 foot wide nave on the long side and an equal width one on the short side. This created a dramatic focus for an elaborate fountain in the interior, now sadly lost. At the intersection of the two naves is an elaborate cast iron lantern, rendered in a kind of arabesque form of decoration – semicircular arches and richly decorated spandrels that towers 112 feet above the central space.

Interior of Bolton's market hall today

Detail of the ornamental cast iron lantern, Bolton market hall

The principle reason why Bolton got a new market hall was to in order to improve the town’s health by removing food sales from the unsanitary open market and to bring the town’s public market in closer proximity to its growing population. Just as important was the intention to elevate the town’s status by means of a lavish but orderly architectural display. What we get is a monumental Classical exterior, complete with a Corinthian portico with 50ft high columns and taking up an entire block in the town centre. This contrasts sharply with the iron and glass interior and its sense of open space and lightness, which was a necessary aspect of its sanitary requirements: both light and air were considered prerequisites for a clean environment and these could only be achieved in such a large space by using iron and glass.

Commemorative wood engraving of Bolton's market hall, 1856

Bolton’s new market hall was opened on 19 December 1855 to an audience of 18-20,000 people, with 3,000 women of Bolton seated in the galleries. In fact, the whole town was effectively closed for the day and given a public holiday: church bells rang, flags adorned many buildings, while a procession moved through the streets. What all of this demonstrates is that market halls, like Bolton’s, were much more than functional buildings: they were a visual spectacle in themselves, a kind of architectural showpiece for the town. The first visitors described the interior of Bolton’s market hall as reminiscent of ‘the fabled palace of Aladdin, or its more real type, the Moorish palaces of Granada and the East’. In the ornamental ironwork, they perceived an exotic counterpart, one that contributed to the market hall becoming the focus of entertainment on Saturday evenings, but of a more civil kind than bear baiting. Social mixing was encouraged in its new spaces, because they were clean and well controlled by the police. They provided a model in defining morally uplifting urban leisure-cum-commerce. The iron and glass interior – with its rich decoration – was perceived as a fitting location for this new form of entertainment. If the market was now sanitised it was equally glamorised.








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