Wednesday June 13 2018
- 18.30–19.30Keynote Lecture by Christine Stevenson
Buildings in Bits: Lessons from the English Baroque
Christine Stevenson, The Courtauld Institute of Art
How can we think about a building in a way that helps us to look at it and acknowledges the contingencies of construction? This lecture offers some suggestions by showing how parts of buildings were commodified, and described, in England between 1660 and 1700.
The ‘English Baroque’ was a social and economic phenomenon more than a stylistic one. Construction was the second-biggest industry in London, and much went on elsewhere, too, but few people made their livings as architects in our sense. Design was an activity, an ad-hoc role. Many figures today identified as carvers, masons, and so on turned their hands to it in the course of shifting and varied production affiliations, which commentators agreed were driven by individual self-interest. This competition was identified as a powerful driver of progress in the building trades, and so was the emulative, conspicuous architectural consumption that demanded equally conspicuous production and producers. The carver Grinling Gibbons, for example, was a famous man. The ways in which his ornaments were described suggest that what is called ‘qualitative self-differentiation’ formed part of artisanal career strategies. In terms of both money and praise, this is, Gibbons’s work was valued for what it was, but also because he had made it.
Is a building, then, only the sum of its parts, an accumulation of the products of many more-or-less skilled and famous hands, both local and far away? Yes, early modern England would have answered: that is how one assessed, or valued, a building. Suggestively, it used architecture metaphorically, to explain economic order as the cumulative result of individual human strivings, not of design or regulation. Very soon, however, the country arrived at something approximating the modern condition. English architects became author-architects, and ambitious artisans were no longer subjects of interest.
Professor Christine Stevenson teaches students at The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, about the history of architecture, and of monuments and memorializing. She grew up in Canada, where her fascination with the architecture of the Baltic and Nordic countries began when she was an exchange student in Finland, and then in Denmark. Her PhD dissertation was about the prisons and asylums designed by the Danish architect C. F. Hansen. Since then she has published two books – Medicine and Magnificence: British Hospital and Asylum Architecture 1660–1815 (2000) and The City and the King: Architecture and Politics in Restoration London (2013) – and is working on another, about famous building craftsmen in early modern England.