The Story of Britain's Best Buildings

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9780563488231: The Story of Britain's Best Buildings

Britain is covered with an extraordinary array of fantastic and brilliant buildings. There are more historic buildings of more styles in Britain than even in Italy. And, our favourites occupy a similar place in the national psyche as Robin Hood and Nell Gwynne. Britain's Best Buildings celebrates the bricks-and-mortar icons of our history that are well known and loved beyond all the others: Dan Cruickshank re-visits the stuff of legend but also reveals the stories behind the buildings. Like the life of any human being, there are highs and lows to the story of every building and as even the best-known celebrity has dark corners and secret closets to explore, so do Britain's best-loved buildings. To know a great building is to make it more our own - to know it even more will make us feel we have a stake in its past, present, and future. Each of the buildings is outstanding architecturally, yet each has strong personal stories behind their construction and as a whole they offer a journey through the nation's architecture and psyche from the 12th century to the present day.

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About the Author:

Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian and the author of London: the Art of Georgian Buildings and Life in the Georgian City. He appears regularly on the BBC television series House Detectives, and he has contributed to BBC2's One Foot in the Past.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

The history of Britain is enshrined in its buildings An exploration of the island's architecture offers dramatic insights into the often strange, even unlikely, juxtapositions that have given the nation its cultural identity. This book explores a thousand years of Britain's history through the story of eight buildings. These buildings represent different epochs and regions but they all express the creative fusion of ideas and ideals -- artistic, spiritual, technical, social, political -- that go into the making of great architecture. They also show that great buildings are corporate works of art, often conceived and constructed by many people over many years, and they reveal ways in which buildings can be enriched through generations of adaptation as they evolve to meet changing needs.

All eight buildings develop ideas about the nature of architecture, and their stories reveal a diverse range of inspiration. Durham Cathedral is a monument both to the creative power of foreign influence -- in this case Norman ideas about Romanesque architecture -- and to the way imported ideas can be fused creatively with local artistic tastes to create a distinct national and regional architecture. Furthermore, Durham is a spectacular example of the way architectural and structural innovation can explode from within a well-established design and construction tradition. The realization, during the 1120s, of the pointed transverse arches of the Durham nave is a key moment in Western architecture. The arches show how architectural thinking, ever evolving, can be launched in a new direction by a moment of revolutionary brilliance that reevaluates the established way of doing things.

An exploration of Durham's architecture is also an exploration of architectural meaning. As a great cathedral, Durham was built to express the Christian religion through forms and symbols. To understand the cathedral and decode the secrets embedded in its stones, it has been necessary to attempt to enter the minds of medieval men and see the building and God's Creation -- the world -- through their eyes. A prime key to unlocking the mysteries and meaning of Durham has been an investigation of the geometry that underpins its design and construction. In the Middle Ages geometry was seen as a sacred science, a divine force latent in nature and an expression of God's creative power, which man could harness to form his own works in harmony with God's cosmos. Durham Cathedral is a powerful expression of this belief as is St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle.

As with Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Windsor Castle is a complex and ancient structure, more a village than a building, that tells the story of its nation. Both Windsor and Holyroodhouse have evolved to fulfil differing roles, ranging from defensive site and refuge to epicentre of royal pomp and power. Both have sought to give physical meaning to the changing institution of monarchy.

Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire, is an expression of both personal power and national glory. As a very explicit monument to military triumph, paid for by the government, it is hardly the typical English eighteenth-century country house. The architecture of the palace -- massive, theatrical, portentous -- was also exceptional. But the process through which the house and estate was created is a story of high drama that throws light on the way a great work of art is formed.

The three nineteenth-century buildings explored in this book each reflect aspects of the great developments and debates -- scientific, technical, artistic and religious -- that galvanized that tumultuous century. The Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, London, ushered a new building type into Britain -- the grand railway hotel -- and utilized the revolutionary and pioneering building technology of the railway age. Cardiff Castle is an extraordinary product of the great conflict between traditional and doctrinaire Christian religious thinking and the new and objective discoveries of science, which questioned the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity. Created during the 1860s and 1870s for one of the richest men in Britain, it offers a bizarre commentary on the shifting values and perceptions of the times. An extreme example of the mid-Victorian passion for the mock-medieval, it is also a shrine to the inspirational power of nature.

While Cardiff Castle represents the conflict between Victorian theology and science, Tower Bridge in London encapsulates the struggle between the artist-architect and the engineer, between a concern for history and for manifest technical progress. Tower Bridge is, in a very idiosyncratic way, a marriage of these conflicting principles, its towers are built around a steel frame and the hydraulic machinery that operates its drawbridge roadway represents the high point of nineteenth-century steam-powered technology. Yet this engineering masterpiece is concealed within façades of history-conscious Gothic-detailed stonework. In this odd combination, Tower Bridge perfectly captures the topsy-turvy artistic values of late Victorian Britain. But, flawed and dishonest compromise or subtle and sophisticated fusion of history and modernity, Tower Bridge has captured the imagination and hearts of the public. Of all the structures discussed in this book it is the only one that, virtually upon completion, passed from the mundane world of function into that of myth. It has become a symbol -- an image --of the capital itself.

Highpoint in London is in many ways the quintessence of twentieth-century British architecture. It carried an ideological message intended to bring about social and political change, and the physical form that message took was the radical and thorough use of new technology to create high-rise housing in an idyllic and healthy setting. Highpoint was a declaration of intent for the future and was meant to revolutionize the way people live in cities and the way cities themselves are planned and built.

These eight buildings have fascinating individual stories to tell but, collectively, they present a portrait of Britain, and identify and investigate some of the key issues that have possessed the nation over the last 1000 years.

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