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 .
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.
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