The present-day Foreign Office in Whitehall is an imposing building...whose genesis is bizarre. In 1857 a competition was held to pick an architect, which provoked a huge row between two rival schools, 'Classical' and 'Gothic'," Bernard Porter recounts. And hence the so-called "Battle of the Styles" - which was fought in the context of massive public apathy, for the British, who look with their ears, do not care much about architecture.
Eventually, George Gilbert Scott "got the building", although his Gothic proposals were unacceptable to the prime minister, Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston. Gothic carried baggage, some of it stacked by A.W.N. Pugin, whose association of the style with Roman Catholicism damned it, especially at a time when Pope Pius IX's 1850 restoration of the English and Welsh Hierarchy was perceived as "papal aggression".
The competition announced in 1856 for the new government buildings was a mismanaged affair: Scott remarked that the judges "knew amazingly little". Winning designs for the Foreign Office were by a pupil of Scott, Henry Edward Coe, in partnership then with H.H. Hofland, and Scott's own entry was placed third. Palmerston proposed ignoring the competition in respect of the actual building, and it was suggested that the government's official architect, James Pennethorne, who had produced a handsome design for the new government offices in 1855, should proceed.
After the ensuing debate (mutterings of "jobbery" were heard), Scott got the commission, but was forced to redesign in the Classical mode. Scott hoped to show that Gothic could be used for secular buildings, for it had huge advantages over Classicism: it was free from the tyranny of symmetry and the regular spacing of similar-sized window openings, and was adaptable, as Scott's own Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras demonstrates. His apostasy, as it was thought by some, did him a great deal of harm, but he had already invested much in the project, and his choice was to build or not: even if he had resigned, the Gothic would not have graced Whitehall.
Porter tells this unedifying story in detail from the point of view of one interested in the British cultural, social and political contexts of the time, and he does so with zest, although there are problems with his work.
He suggests that architects such as Coe were duds: Scott did not think so. He says of Samuel Angell (1800-66), who was co-opted to advise on the competition, that he was "very obscure" and has not "found his way into any modern dictionary of architects". This is untrue: Angell (scholar and frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy, surveyor to The Clothworkers' Company and designer of several not undistinguished buildings) is listed in Howard Colvin's A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, which Porter claims to have consulted. Angell's presence is acknowledged in the Directory of British Architects 1834-1914, but Porter seems to think it lists "every practising architect, however minor". It does not: it merely includes those who were members of the (later Royal) Institute of British Architects.
"Much of the South Kensington exhibition site, including Waterhouse's Natural History Museum", Porter says, is Gothic: the museum is actually German Romanesque. He also suggests that he is not persuaded that the Victorian city terrified many people, so how is suburbia's success explained? And who, pray, were "the Neumann brothers in Bavaria" who made Hawksmoor look "dour"? The Palace of Westminster is "pastichey", and, maddeningly, the phrase "as we shall see" with variants recurs too often. Illustrations (which are minutely reproduced) include two distorted snapshots by Porter that should have been rejected.
This book is a missed opportunity: there is too much wrong with it to encourage confidence in the accuracy of its contents.
The Battle of the Styles: Society, Culture and the Design of a New Foreign Office, 1855-1861
By Bernard Porter. Continuum, 256pp, £35.00. ISBN 9781441167392 and 68726 (e-book). Published 17 March 2011