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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What The Hell Is A Victorian House?

Beats me.

Everybody will give you a different answer. Forget asking a Real Estate agent. They call anything that they don't call Colonial a Victorian.

Let's ask Wikipedia, which is generally edifying if not always supremely accurate.
  • British Arts and Crafts movement
  • Gothic Revival
  • Italianate
  • Jacobethan (the precursor to the Queen Anne style)
  • Neoclassicism
  • Neo-Grec
  • Painted ladies
  • Queen Anne
  • Renaissance Revival
  • Romanesque Revival (includes Richardsonian Romanesque)
  • Second Empire
  • Stick-Eastlake
  • Industrial architecture
All that happened while Queen Victoria was parked in a palace, but I'm not sure that's exactly what defines the term. And America is different than the British Empire, of course. Arts and Crafts in America is decidedly post-Victorian, but it was born in Britain with the old girl still on the fancy chair in the drafty castle. And we'd call Jacobethan "Jacobean" here.

In architecture school in the 1970s, the short answer was: anything after the mansard roof showed up. (That's a mansard roof in the picture at the top of the page. It appears Dillinger is parked outside the house.)That's Second Empire style. I know, that' s a little odd, as the "empire" they're referring to was Napoleon III, not the lady from the gin bottle. But I don't make the rules, I just report 'em.

Others lump in Greek Revival. I don't. I prefer the definition best summarized in the term: "picturesque eclecticism." Before that was simply Revivals: Greek, Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance. I have a book published in 1973 called "Victorian Houses- A Treasury of Lesser Known Examples" that I refer to often. Victorian houses were way out of favor in 1973. The less-is-more brutalist zeitgeist was raging then, and urban renewal schemes had been bulldozing Victorian houses by the neighborhoodload and putting up concrete dovecotes for humans in their place. The introduction for Victorian Houses puts it bluntly:

The architectural monstrosities of the Victorian period have been created by twentieth-century ignorance. Ignorance, the root of religious bigotry, racial prejudice, dread of divergent social systems, and repulsion to unfamiliar forms in music, drama, art and architecture, is a deficiency in the perceiver, not it the thing perceived. Modern people, subscribing to the organic principle in building (whereby outer forms follow inner function), naturally would lack understanding of the Victorian practice of arranging rooms in masses built for pictorial effect. ..The traditional theory in Western culture is that architecture is style... applied to structure. The Victorians brought the concept to its logical conclusions. Theirs was a world rich in the accumulated motifs of past civilizations, from which they borrowed copiously, and -- it must not be overlooked--to which they added creatively...Contemporary critics accuse the Victorians of needless complexity, of extraneous clutter. But is this not a frank admission of the 20th century failure to comprehend the 19th century attraction to design articulation? Theirs was an architectural vocabulary full of meanings to which our eyes and ears have become insensitive, and of which our minds have become ignorant.

Wow. Preach it, brother. You've poisoned your minds towards the Victorians, and it ruined your appreciation of their architectural accomplishments. People in America began to associate Victorian houses with a life that vanished in the Depression. Inchoate blame was ascribed. Victorians were the haunted houses in every movie.

Anyway, we have lost a little perspective on Victorian architecture. If you need proof of what's been lost in the less-is-more fetishism of the last fifty years, take a look at what happens when folks try their hand at adding decoration to their homes in an attempt to acieve any sort of Victorian, or even just mildly picturesque, effect. They paste on a few gewgaws and lose interest. It's much harder than you think to make a dense riot of decoration. A high style Victorian is a very sophisticated thing, and required a deft touch, and a lot of nerve.

At any rate, we can wander around the world of the cobweb-catcher Victorian home for quite a while. There's lots to look at and be interested in. That's what the Victorians thought about the whole wide world, after all.

2 comments:

Sissy Willis said...

This bit caught my eye in that proto-multiculti-lite intro to the Victorian Houses book:

"The traditional theory in Western culture is that architecture is style . . . applied to structure."

What about the classic proportions that underlie those houses of yore? In my artistic eye, today's functional equivalent of the Victorian urban mansion -- the lumpish trophy mansion plunked in the middle of an old cowfield -- is an accretion of architectural sound bites in search of an author.

Your blog rocks! . . . 'found it via Maggie's Farm.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Sissy- Thank you for reading and commenting.

The quote you referenced is a bit jarring. It's boilerplate anti-Victorian on first gloss.

I had to re-read it a few times to realize the fellow was saying the exact opposite of what I thought he was at first. He said the deficiencies he outlined were imaginary, and we brought them with us because we had a preconceived notion of the inhabitants of the houses, which he is positing is entirely incorrect.

He talks about the Victorian style of massing and arranging rooms for picturesque effect. The ornamentation was added to that to achieve a kind of density, but the bones of the houses were almost sublimely arranged and decorated. It's really hard to do. And his idea is that not only do we not know how to do it anymore, we don't even know how to appreciate it any more.

Your formulation: an accretion of architectural sound bites in search of an author is very good, and a lively way to describe postmodernism: Just grabbing gewgaws and gluing them willy nilly all over a tract house on steroids stapled to the ass end of a garage in a cornfield, as it were.

Postmodernism uses architectural and cultural symbols as a sort of visual pun. No one sane wants to live in a pun.