ARC 331: National Identities

week of

January 18-24


How do nations develop their architectural identity?

The idea that nations can be identified by their architecture is a modern idea. While we see an ancient roof of curved concrete and identify it as a signature of Imperial Rome, or a slender flying buttress reaching toward a steep roof of a cathedral and understand it to express French medievalism, neither of those cultures had such understandings. It is only after the Renaissance that architects recognized architecture's capacity to express (or invent) distinctions between places and commonalities within a culture.

Growing nationalism is a main theme, both in Europe and the United States, during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the borders of European countries were redrawn at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). On the other side of the ocean, the U.S. had achieved a sense of maturity as it celebrated its 50th anniversary just a decade later. Urbanism grew as the fruits of the Industrial Revolution spread (slowly) from Britain through Europe and to the US, where industry increased and cities became more dense. Privileged portions of the population became more so, with a broadening middle class of managers and office workers with leisure to spend in theatres and parks, and expectations about the appearance of the growing cities--especially as manifest in monuments of good governance and its cultural beneficiaries.

While fueled in many ways by technological change, monumental architecture does not immediately appear to express the physical fruits of the Revolution--at least to twenty-first-century eyes accustomed to seeing industrial materials on the outsides of buildings. The nineteenth-century eye, by and large, expected architecture to express its customary proportions, forms, and materials, although the expectations and delight in the growth of those buildings--made possible by new inventions--was widely embraced. While it is also true that the opportunities of the Industrial Revolution were embraced very shrewdly on building sites, inventions that enhanced structural stability and (allegedly) made buildings fireproof were adopted strategically--and often invisibly.

Following the synthetic approach to blending precedents that characterized Neo-Classicism, the next generation of architects was more likely to categorize styles along historic, national lines. Like their forebears, they indulged in a broad understanding of history, but were more likely to invent within languages than to combine them. This general historical understanding that, in reading culture encompassed historical literature as a beneficial leisure activity, was related to a new theoretical trend that aligned historic and modern cultural values in the determination of building forms, and which had particular sway in the development of designs associated with national identity. Granted, common themes of taste virtually required that the most popular styles--"Grecian" and Gothic(k)--would appear in all European and American capitals to some extent, the narrative and justification could vary significantly, and depended on the interpretive quality that history always takes in different times and places.

  • Read: Gelernter, chap. 5
  • Read: Bergdoll: read chap. 2 (pp. 69-71); read chap. 5; skim chap. 6 (read pp. 189-203)
  • For an exercise later in this lesson, commit to either A. W. N. Pugin or T. U. Walter (due Monday)

learning objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify main modern monuments of the Grecian and Gothic styles by name, date, designer/client and location (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Describe integration of technology (material and non-material) in individual monuments (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Summarize the main concepts of Associationism and in the works of theory by Alison and Walter (COMPREHENSION)
  • Explain stylistic changes in design as they relate to cultural context (and especially why an architect would choose one style over the others for particular projects) (COMPREHENSION)
  • Visually analyze buildings from this period to suggest date, place, and designer (ANALYSIS)
  • Critique the agency of people and technology w/in the process of design (EVALUATE)

part 1

Grecian Ideals

Classical precedents maintained their status as the most tasteful and appropriate options for architects. However, whereas the Neo-Classicists had expanded on the pool of resources considered appropriate and acceptable by the Neo-Palladians (who only drank from the well of the Italian Renaissance), this later generation appreciated the Neo-Classical smorgasbord but kept their plates and courses carefully organized. From their work we see the development of what many historians call "revival styles." But since their practitioners did not see these as "revivals," but rather as continuations of living (if sleepy) traditions, we will adopt their styles names: Grecian, Gothic(k), Italianate, Egyptian/oid. In their preferences, architects responded to deep cultural commitments tied not only to taste, but also to ideas of nationalism and appropriate associations to make for particular building functions, both traditional (like churches) and modern (like banks).

From the wide Classical world, the Classical Greeks emerged as the standard-bearers of good taste. In part, this was because of the feeling that, if the ancient Romans (who had been lionized for over four centuries) were really good, the people who taught them must be even better. (This idea was a new one, burnished by the loads of archaeologists who followed in the footsteps of Stuart and Revett, as well as the major event of Lord Elgin selling the Parthenon marbles to the British government in 1816.) Additionally, many people (and, more broadly, political regimes) saw an alignment between their own national ambitions and Greece as both

  1. the cradle of democracy (at least as it was understood at the time) and
  2. a reflection of continued struggles for freedom, given the current War of Greek Independence against the Ottoman Turks (1821 and 1830).

No where was this more profound than in a new country, less than a half-century old.

Americans were quick to identify with the Greeks: the ancient ones, who had "invented" democracy, as well as the modern ones, trying to throw off an oppressor's yoke. Further, the increasing tensions out of Ottoman-occupied Greece coincided with the nearing of the USA's 50th anniversary, which gave Americans even more reason to adopt what they called the "Grecian" style than matters of taste alone.

In terms of culture, finance, education, and historical significance, Philadelphia was the greatest city in the country. So much building was happening there in the first decades of the century, and so much of it Greek (and in marble, too, taking advantage of the great quarries in southeastern Pennsylvania), that the city earned the nickname "Athens of America." Its undisputed leading architect, William Strickland, constructed dozens of major Greek buildings in Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the country, too. Here is his self-proclaimed masterwork, which took him all the way down to Nashville:

The Americans were not alone. Grecian monuments appeared across England, France, and elsewhere. It was also adopted for specific use in the new German Confederation,which emerged from the millennium-old Holy Roman Empire in 1816. Witness Karl Friedrich Schinkel, designing for a new state in post-Napoleonic Prussia:


Do you see any conflict between places as ostensibly different as the U.S. and Germany drawing from the same ancient source in the development of their modern cities? Keeping in mind that most architects who had the wherewithal to travel (a small, elite group, to be sure) went to Paris or Rome, what do you think of Schinkel's travels to England?

part 2

Gothic Alternatives

By no means was Grecian architecture the only game in town for early nineteenth-century architects. One of the enduring lessons of Neo-Classicism was to embrace learning from diverse sources and, although most of those architects and their productions were more Classical than not, they had opened the door to the elevation of medieval architecture as being worthy of study. Especially in an era in which theories of the Sublime and Picturesque were profound, Gothic architecture offered alternatives to Greek that could appeal to distinct aesthetic preferences, patriotic associations, and emotional states.

Britain was the country where Gothic architecture had survived longer than anywhere (for example, consider that the construction of the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster was constructed just x years after Bramante began his plans for the rebuilding of St. Peter's). It is natural to find these deep roots shooting up some of the earliest Gothic(k) shoots anywhere in Europe.

The taste for Gothic(k) was nowhere stronger than in Twickenham, outside of London, where Horace Walpole built his house. Strawberry Hill is extraordinary in many ways, especially set against the context of prevailing elite taste being so fundamentally Classical. But Walpole had a different vision, to say the least. It's all too appropriate that the writer of the book, The Castle of Otranto (1764), acknowledged as the world's first Gothick novel, oversaw the construction of the first significant revival of Gothic architecture for residential purposes. (You can read the book here.) The house has recently been treated to an extensive overhaul and restoration, and looks every bit as grand and wild as it did in Walpole's day. Granted, this is a private residence, and not an urban, public building, but the Walpole family's social and political prominence in English government and society make it more than just a private dwelling.

The house makes liberal use of out-of-context details and motifs from Gothic buildings around England, and was planned with a clear preference for picturesque qualities for their own fun sake. Overseen by the enthusiastic Walpole, the house was designed by something he called his "Committee on Taste:" pals from the world of design, including architect Robert Adam.

Walpole's Gothick fantasy led the way for more careful, antiquarian-inspired studies and applications of Gothic principles as well as its fancies. A number of books heralded the new seriousness with which medieval architecture would be taken, especially in England. In An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture (1819), Thomas Rickman established the chronological classifications still in use today (Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular). But it took another writer to both underscore the full patriotic quality of Gothic precedents and also manifest them in a huge portfolio of work (including the most important building in England, the Houses of Parliament).

Gothic architecture also had its uses in other places. Remember the great Greek architect you met earlier, Schinkel? Well, a pointed arch could turn his head every bit as much as a pediment.


In your textbook readings, you'll come across many other Gothic monuments, including the British Parliament (and the later, Hungarian one), a slew of Anglican churches and their Episcopalian descendants. Think about these buildings standing near each other in modern cities, as well as potentially being on the drawing boards in individual architects' offices--along with, for good measure, Egyptian and Italianate projects.

part 3


It's worth pausing for a moment to think about the theory that is embedded in these buildings, although it rarely gets very much attention in textbooks. Recall that in the eighteenth century, new criteria for judgement appeared in aesthetic theory. Prominently, Edmund Burke wrote about the Sublime (and Beautiful) in his book of 1757; Uvedale Price built on the idea in 1794 with his book that defined the Picturesque. They articulated the idea, spreading quick in the era, that beauty (especially as defined in the Renaissance) was not the only point to aesthetic things--including buildings. Emotional (not only intellectual) responses were important and, as personal reactions that could not be trained, were individual.

Their work opened the door for the appreciation of variety that opens by the nineteenth century. Central to the historical work we see in this lesson, Archibald Alison's book, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (London: 1790), outlines the ideals of Associationism. He first establishes taste as an emotion--again, a personal reaction. He argues that people have long admired Greek architecture for more than any abstract ideal connected with their forms and proportions. In particular, something like the Parthenon "commands our admiration" because they are associated with the civilization that is "most hallowed in our imaginations." is difficult for us to see them, even in their modern copies, without feeling them operate upon our minds, as relics of those polished nations where they first arise, and of that greater people by whom they were afterward borrowed.

Alison goes on to say that uneducated people will not appreciate Grecian architecture fully, because they do not know those historical lessons required to make such associations. Even greater appreciation will be felt by connoisseurs who have studied Classical art and architecture deeply; but none of them will have as thrilling a response as the person who best understands the "genius, or skill, or invention which they display"--the architect.

Alison's ideas are the theoretical foundation for the architects you've seen in this lesson, who practiced a wide variety of styles for particular expressive purposes. But while virtually all architects practiced in accordance with historic taste, they may have differed in the number of historic sources from which they drew. Consider Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52) and Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-87): both prestigious in their home countries (in part for working on national capitals), they also both wrote theory.

  • We will consider them in an exercise in class. To prepare for it,
  1. Skim these excerpts from Walter's "Lectures" (1841) and Pugin's Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843)
  2. Download the second page of the sign-up sheet and fill it out for your architect. Bring two copies to class: one to turn in and one to use in your discussion group. Updated 1/21: here is the final chart

Note: when Pugin writes "Christian architecture," he means "Gothic architecture;" when he writes about the "Catholic church," he sometimes means Roman Catholicism, but he may also mean "catholic" as in the all-embracing faith that would include Catholicism and Anglicanism.

additional resources

Additional Resources

See more about Schinkel in this think-piece from Architectural Record.

See more about Strawberry Hill (including restoration process) in this video.

See more about Pugin in the multi-part television program (based on Rosemary Hill's great biography), "God's Own Architect."

image at the top

Second National Bank of the United States, Philadelphia (William Strickland: 1818)