ARM­CHAIR TRAV­ELLER

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MegaBuilders : En­gi­neer Maria Teresa Brotto’s 12-year bat­tle to stop Venice sink­ing. Sun­day, 9.30pm, Dis­cov­ery.

Pos­i­tiveFoot­prints : Eleven trav­ellers help put a new class­room in place for the stu­dents at Xo vil­lage in Viet­nam. Wed­nes­day, 8pm, Nat Geo Ad­ven­ture. Barry Oliver the mon­u­ments they leave be­hind, not by the bud­get deficit.

Of course, no one to­day asks what Big Ben cost. No one re­ally knows. Cash price and emo­tional value are al­to­gether dif­fer­ent.

But for gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials squea­mish about com­mit­ting to qual­ity, it is worth record­ing that Big Ben came about not through any very ra­tio­nal pro­cure­ment process with tar­gets and dig­ni­fied fall-back po­si­tions. In­stead, it was con­ceived and ex­e­cuted in an at­mos­phere of con­tro­versy, back-bit­ing and mud­dle at least as toxic as the witches’ brew of col­lid­ing egos and con­flict­ing in­ter­ests that filled Lon­don’s ill-fated Mil­len­nium Dome.

By the time the clock tower was fin­ished in 1860 it was al­ready old-fash­ioned and those in­clined to go tut-tut, tut­ted.

Talk about mud­dled briefs. Suc­cess­ful ar­chi­tect Charles Barry won the com­pe­ti­tion for the re­build­ing of the Palace of West­min­ster af­ter the cat­a­strophic fire of Oc­to­ber 16, 1834, so mem­o­rably recorded by artist William Turner. At Manch­ester City Art Gallery and the Trav­ellers Club in Pall Mall, Barry had al­ready very plainly shown him­self to be a clas­si­cist of strict for­mal­ity, but par­lia­ment re­quired a gothic de­sign: Henry VIII’s chapel was a style­pointer not to be ig­nored.

So Barry put the young Au­gus­tus Welby North­more Pu­gin, who had helped him on the goth­icky de­sign of King Ed­ward VI’s School in Birm­ing­ham, in charge of all met­al­work, glass and sur­face dec­o­ra­tion.

The re­sult is one of the most mag­nif­i­cent and cu­ri­ous ar­chi­tec­tural com­pro­mises of all time. The en­tire Palace of West­min­ster is a clas­si­cal com­po­si­tion in that it is, gen­er­ally, square and reg­u­lar. It is a big ob­long with tow­ers at the cor­ners. Pu­gin, pass­ing in a row­ing boat, his favoured form of trans­port, said it was all Greek. Ex­cept, that is, in sur­face fin­ishes as Pu­gin cov­ered the Greek with gothic de­tail­ing.

But more than just sur­face ef­fect, the con­cep­tion of the Big Ben clock tower was Pu­gin’s too. Close up, it is en­thralling; as a set­piece it com­prises one of the great ver­ti­cals of the area, which in­clude St Mar­garets and the Abbey. Ar­chi­tec­tural critic Ian Nairn said they fire like a four-cylin­der petrol en­gine, a bru­tal — if telling — me­chan­i­cal con­ceit that would have hor­ri­fied the pi­ous Pu­gin.

And as a stern cor­rec­tive to any wrong­headed no­tion that cre­ativ­ity can be sen­si­bly man­aged by ac­coun­tants, the ex­am­ple of Pu­gin is cen­tral. The ar­chi­tect had the symp­toms of hy­drar­garia, or mer­cury poi­son­ing. Be­sides the phys­i­cally un­com­fort­able pe­riph­eral neu­ropa­thy, there were the ac­com­pa­ny­ing mem­ory loss, per­son­al­ity change and mood swings.

But isn’t the re­sult mag­nif­i­cent? With quite lit­er­ally mad en­deav­our, Pu­gin dec­o­rated archi­volts, squints and span­drels. He did not con­sider ret­i­cence. He lov­ingly detailed fleu­rons, spirelets, stoups and mul­lions. Ev­ery de­tail of crock­ets and crest­ings, daggers and di­a­pers was painstak­ingly con­sid­ered. Nail­heads, mouchettes, es­cutcheons and dog­teeth were drawn in metic­u­lous, de­mented de­tail. Pu­gin wrote in Fe­bru­ary 1852, scarcely co­her­ent through manic over­work and poi­son:

To­mor­row I ren­der all the de­sign for fin­ish­ing his bell tower and it is beau­ti­ful and I am the whole ma­chin­ery of the clock.’’ This cu­ri­ous last ex­pres­sion may be taken to mean he claimed au­thor­ship of the rower de­sign.

He favoured brandy with wa­ter as a treat­ment for his dis­tur­bances. Even­tu­ally they tried bleed­ing him with leeches, but he ended up rav­ing in Bed­lam while Barry was knighted. The ques­tion of au­thor­ship was, there­fore, al­ways con­fused. Pu­gin was never com­pletely cred­ited with the clock tower de­sign, but nei­ther did Barry have the neck to deny it or claim it as his own.

Rose­mary Hill, in her mag­nif­i­cent 2007 bi­og­ra­phy of Pu­gin, God’sAr­chi­tect , says there is no doubt that the con­cep­tion of Big Ben was Pu­gin’s. Barry had seen West­min­ster burn­ing while re­turn­ing from Brighton by coach. The ter­ri­ble glow lit up the night sky through­out the south­east. The smell of fire was ev­ery­where. A rather less noble odour sur­rounds the Bri­tish par­lia­ment at present. In­deed, it is fair com­ment to say that par­lia­ment needs moral re­build­ing in 2009 as ur­gently as it needed ar­chi­tec­tural re­con­struc­tion af­ter the fire of 1834.

And the clock it­self? The orig­i­nal brief re­quired the first stroke of the hour to be ac­cu­rate to within one sec­ond. A tele­graphic con­nec­tion to the Royal Ob­ser­va­tory at Green­wich kept a con­tin­u­ous check on this; as proof of what a de­signer of ge­nius can achieve for na­tional pres­tige, Pu­gin’s clock tower is un­sur­passed. He did it while go­ing mad and care­less of bud­get. There’s a metaphor strug­gling to es­cape here. Bo­ing. The Spec­ta­tor Stephen Bay­ley is ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign cor­re­spon­dent for Bri­tain’s TheOb­server .

Check­list

For in­for­ma­tion on tours of the Houses of Par­lia­ment and watch­ing de­bates from the pub­lic gal­leries: www.par­lia­ment.uk. For de­tails of Big Ben’s 150th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions: www.bigben.par­lia­ment.uk. Su­san Kuro­sawa’s De­par­tureLounge col­umn re­turns next month.

DEALS OF THE WEEK

Trips up for auc­tion; half-price beach es­cape; ho­tel rooms open to of­fers; Gala­pa­gos cruises dis­counted. Th­ese and other money-sav­ing of­fers are fea­tured in hol­i­day deals, up­dated daily:

www.theaus­tralian.com.au/travel/dd.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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