In a few days hundreds of art historians will congregate at the Royal College of Art in London for the annual AAH conference. Those who know me well know I love a good conference – some of the most important work in the field is accomplished somewhere between the papers, the vigorous dialogue surrounding them in focused panels, and the bar. I was last at AAH in 2012, when I co-chaired a panel with Alan Powers on ‘Modernism’s Other’, exploring what else happened in the midst of the rise of Modernism in architecture and architectural criticism. Predictably, a lot happened. Crucially, the dominance of Modernism as the narrative of twentieth-century architecture’s progress has marginalised a lot of other history, and it’s time to recover it. Ornament, historicism, and the perpetual slippages and reworkings of ‘modern’ itself as a category, are all at stake. These themes still preoccupy me in my own research, particularly in relation to the Gothic Revival’s long reach into the twentieth century. This year, my AAH contribution is a paper for a panel investigating ‘dream spaces’ at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m looking forward to offering a talk that considers intersecting priorities and stylistic tropes in two major building projects: Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson’s St Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, and James S. Gibson’s designs for Middlesex Guildhall in London. I’ve spent long periods of time studying both buildings and increasingly feel that they express a surprisingly coherent set of affinities connecting modern medievalist architecture practiced in both Britain and America.
To date, the richest and most thoughtful assessments of the Middlesex Guildhall’s history and features are the chapters by Peter Cormack and Jeremy Musson in Chris Miele’s edited volume celebrating the institutional structures and adopted building of the Supreme Court. The Court moved into the old Middlesex Guildhall building a handful of years ago, and not without serious controversy. The SAVE Britain’s Heritage campaign to stop the Supreme Court from radically altering the interior was ultimately a failure, but it did raise the building’s profile amongst architects and historians. Indeed, within its testimonial report, Gavin Stamp also mentioned that he saw a kinship between Gibson’s design and the American Gothic creations of Cram and Goodhue.
My interpretation of Middlesex Guildhall’s design and impacts in relation to a powerful American ‘Gothic quest’ amplifies its importance in histories of British architecture, and widens the research dialogue from localised and nationalist approaches to a broader sphere of modern cultural concerns. The Middlesex Guildhall is a fascinating site, teeming with sculpture and densely layered with meaning, produced at a time of increasing anxiety regarding empire and political upheaval mere months from the triggers that set the First World War in motion. The building continues to hide in plain sight, relatively speaking; there is much to see, and much to learn. As I research the structure in relation to developments in Gothic architecture a few timezones to the west, it’s increasingly clear that the building deserves more reflection so that we might gain fresh purchase on what is at stake when revivalism – and modern Gothic in particular – is deployed as a progressive strategy for a major architectural statement regarding cyclical patterns of history, the perils and pleasures of nostalgia, the expectations of justice, and the prospect of utopian dreaming. Long after Pugin’s Gothic skin clad the Houses of Parliament across the square, Gothic still remained as a powerful language in which designers and patrons could craft a future in the early uncertain years of the twentieth century.