Peoples Palaces

Originally published 2/9/2010

Do you know about the great civic buildings of the north? I don’t mean a dry list of names and dates or a discourse on architectural styles, I mean the big ideas and social drivers behind their construction. No? Me neither, but the ideas behind these buildings should be a matter of pride. This has been prompted by a series on BBC 4 about the civic architecture of the great northern cities. To me it’s been a bit of a revelation, the amount of amazing buildings that dot our cities and the time, effort and detail that went into building these structures.

Today’s prevailing attitudes about the north especially in London centric Britain can be quite dismissive; dirt, decay and dead industries. Such attitudes however wrong and ill-informed contain a seed of truth about the north; industry. The Industrial Revolution built the cities of the north, and these cities then became the powerhouse which built the British Empire. Manchester clothed the world in cotton, Leeds in wool, Sheffield produced half of Europe’s steel, Liverpool exported these goods all to the four corners of the world, and from their soot blackened wombs of steel and brick they gave us civic buildings to rival any in the country.

What was most interesting about the programmes was how the attitudes of the time shaped the architecture, and it basically boils down to two key points. Firstly civic pride, these new cities grown rich on the fruits of their labour wanted to make a statement of success, this coupled with the desire to outdo their neighbours and rivals resulted in a series of spectacular town halls and public buildings.


Taking years to build and lavishly decorated they were designed to provide a focal point for civic pride, venues for meetings and public events, unlike today where pride appears to relate the power of your financial district. I love the effort that went into these structures, artisans taking time to carve statues and relief’s, and painters decorating the walls and ceilings with fresco’s levels of detail that are unthinkable in today’s time and money conscious world.

Secondly whereas today a city builds a stadium or a tall office building when they want to show off the Victorians had a much better idea. Libraries, concert halls and museums were their statements of intent. One can understand this as during this period Britain was undergoing a revolution in knowledge with science and technology advancing rapidly and the passing of the 1870 education act introducing formal education of all children to the age of 12. Thus the genesis of many of these structures lies in the Victorian idea of self help through education. 

I love the way these buildings were themselves designed to be used as lessons with lessons in classics from Roman and Greek influences or the use of paintings and stained glass all to tell stories of historical events. 

The money for these structures often came from the new money industrialists in philanthropic gestures that were the style of the times, men at the forefront of technology who were always pushing the boundaries of production. Men not scared of new ideas represented by these buildings or frightened of the challenges in there construction. One could argue that there is an element of hubris in all these structures and while that may be true but I still think the ideas behind them are relevant and valid but just not the whole answer.

Throughout the series the thing that struck me most is the detail and creativity involved in these structures, the effort taken to create something really special almost regardless of cost or time taken. Today we can, and do build some extraordinarily beautiful structures we tend to rely on clever engineering tricks and the use of light and space to inspire. There is nothing wrong with this but I feel these structures lack the permanence of there Victorian brethren.

“When we build let us think that we build forever” John Ruskin.