Conflict Between Greek and Gothic Revival

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The Greek Revival and the Gothic Revival are terms that carry specific meanings in relation to the history of architecture. What did they represent at the time and what was the nature of the conflict between the respective adherents?

The Gothic Revival represented chiefly two things: firstly, in its earlier form, it was a Romantic celebration in stone of the spirit and atmosphere of the Middle Ages; secondly, in its later and more serious form, the Gothic Revival reflected the architectural and philosophical conviction of its exponents that the moral vigour of the Middle Ages was reflected in its Gothic architecture, and that the reintroduction of this Gothic style of architecture to eighteenth-century society could re-invigorate it morally. Neo-Gothic architecture in its earlier forms, typified by buildings such as Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, was characterized by a highly ornamental, decadent, visually powerful and intricate style; and, what is more, a style that cared little for functionalism or strict adherence to specific structures.

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By these characteristics Neo-Gothic architecture encapsulated the Romantic literary and poetic spirit of the age, as had been evinced in the works of men like Horace Walpole, Alfred Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott. In this sense, the Neo-Gothic was a nostalgic and sentimental backward glance. In a different sense the Gothic Revival represented the attempt of certain architects and churchmen to transfer the liturgical vigour of Gothic churches of the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century by capturing it in stone. Thus men like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin came to argue that the Gothic Revival represented a standard of moral excellence that was to be practised and imitated as widely as possible. The Greek Revival grew out of the neoclassicism movement, and represented in essence an attempt by its adherents to find in the architecture of antiquity a form of architecture that corresponded to the principles of reason and order emerging from their own Age of Reason and Enlightenment. Neoclassicism, and the Greek Revival in particular, represented a pursuit for architectural and intellectual truth. An architect could perceive in the forms of antiquity principles of excellent reasoning and intelligence that prevailed in the rationalistic spirit of his own age, and by reinvigorating the ancient style the neoclassical architect could build buildings that were inspired by and inspired in others principles of reason and rationality. Neoclassicism and the Greek Revival conflicted with the Gothic Revival because they perceived the moral truths claimed by the Gothic revivalists as chiefly illusory and false. The Gothic Revival was, in the neo-classicist’s eyes, a decadent celebration of style over substance that elevated illusion and ornament above reason and truth. Neo-Gothic architects were seemingly content to produce endless copies and weak imitations of Gothic style merely to please frivolous aristocrats; neo-classicists however believed that their architecture was a creative act that gave birth to constantly new adaptations of the classical model.

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