The Battle of the Styles: Society, Culture and the Design of a new Foreign Office, 1855 - 61 by Bernard Porter
|The Battle of the Styles: Society, Culture and the Design of a new Foreign Office, 1855 - 61 by Bernard Porter|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A look at the debate which preceded the building of a new Foreign Office. It's a scholarly text but more readable than most although still probably not for the general reader or those whose interest is primarily in the Foreign Office per se.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: March 2011|
Back in the 1850s it was mooted that Whitehall required some new public buildings, primarily in the form of a new Foreign Office. Such matters are never quite so simple as deciding on the need and arranging the construction and completion: there was to be debate, occasionally about the need for a new building but primarily about the form it should take and the style in which it should be built. This proved to be acrimonious and devious and came to be known as 'The Battle of the Styles'.
We come to books in strange ways. I've no great interest in architecture as such and only a mild interest in Victorian history, but with two immediate family members working in, or from, the Foreign Office, the sub-title – Society, Culture and the Design of a new Foreign Office, 1855 – 61 – spoke to me and the book went to the woman who is always wondering where her family will be off to next.
It's a scholarly text and not really written for the casual reader. I had to work at it over more time than I usually spend on a book with only 145 pages of substantive text and an awful lot of notes for those who wish to look into the background. The text is small and closely packed. Paragraphs are frequently long and a page can look like a mountain to climb to the general reader. It is redeemed though by a witty style of writing, producing a couple of snorts of audible laughter and plenty of wry smiles along the way.
It is not an architectural history – something which those in the profession might care to bear in mind – and doesn't pretend to be so. It's a look at the society and the culture which spawned the battle of the styles. Should the public building be Gothic (not usually employed on secular buildings) or Classical? Was there a Victorian style, and if not, what should it be? Who was competent to judge and why did we end up with a building designed by an architect who worked in one style but who was then commanded to produce a design in another and which gave birth to a building which no one seemed to like – not even the architect who designed it and certainly not the people who had to work there.
The book is interesting but perhaps a little self-indulgent on the part of the author. The battle didn't particularly decide anything and wasn't momentous in any other way. I doubt that many people have been salivating at the thought of its publication. I'm glad I read it though: I'm a little more knowledgeable about styles of architecture and their antecedents and I enjoyed the book more than was expected.
Did I learn any more about the Foreign Office? Not really: the building, you see was almost incidental and it was the debate that mattered.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
If the subject of this book appeals then you might enjoy St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Battle of the Styles: Society, Culture and the Design of a new Foreign Office, 1855 - 61 by Bernard Porter at Amazon.com.
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