AWN Pugin at 200: Gothic Revival in the 21st Century (Part 3)

From Polemics to Principles

It is September in our year of study focusing on AWN Pugin, and Part Three is finally published. I have been doing much more studying than writing for most of the year, as well as working on the upcoming presentation on Pugin for the Texas State Architects Convention in October. On Friday 19 October at 3:45, I will present with Dr Timothy Parker an AIA Continuing Education session entitled "Pugin at 200: From polemics to principles."

The problem of polemics is a major cause of my interest in Pugin. The vast majority of current texts about church architecture are either grossly partisan or based on prevailing simplistic assumptions perpetuated by the availability cascade. This is true of so much of our public discourse, dominated as it is by mass media, withering attention spans (my own included), and 140 character limits. I believe that as a culture, we have no meaningful, elevated discourse on the nature of church-building. Much of the work on these pages I dedicate to combating this problem.


My initial familiarity with Pugin was through Contrasts and as a proponent of a particular style. So my initial assumption was that reading Pugin would be an example of the problem of polemics in religious discourse. However, given that the subtitle of the TSA presentation is "From Polemics to Principles," a more careful reading of his texts revealed a position far more rich and complicated. Further study of Rosemary Hill's detailed biography of Pugin, God's Architect, and even Phoebe Stanton's The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture, confirmed this new reading.

What follows is an expanded version of the draft of the section of the presentation which deals with the question of polemics. Many contextual factors lead to the conclusion that Pugin was simply a partisan polemic and to the perpetuation of that limited reading. But because of this, the potential for his continued influence is all the more promising.

Polemic 1. a controversial argument, as one against some opinion,doctrine, etc. 2. a person who argues in opposition to another;controversialist. 1638, "controversial argument or discussion " from Gk.polemikos "warlike, belligerent," from polemos "war." Meaning"one who writes in opposition to another" is attested from 1680.

A polemic is a belligerently one-sided argument for exclusivity of a view. Polemics are inhearently weak because they are: (1) primarily reactionary, (2) narrow in scope, (3) predicated on superficial cues, and (4) tend to stigmatize individuals who hold contrary opinions as immoral, attacking the person not the idea. Read the list of cognitive biases on wikipedia; every last one describes the development, spread, or effect of this type of position.

Pugin's most well known work, Contrasts makes an extremely visual argument that pagan neoclassical architecture is bad and English Christian Gothic architecture is good. But already we have been reductive: Contrasts is not primarily about architecture, but about the social conditions which manifest in architecture. For Pugin in this type of work, architecture is not an end, nor is it a means to an end. In other works he deals more immediately with the practical concerns of architecture or the principles guiding architecture. But Contrasts is much more a condemnation of, for example, the treatment of destitutes and prisoners under the Enlightenment rationalism as compared to medieval Christian care. In fact, he is as much criticizing the contemporary church as being rather un-Christian.


If we put this in the ecclesio-political, architectural, and church-building contexts which Pugin challenged, we can see how opposition on all fronts led to the desire to marginalize his arguments.

Pugin first had the problem of being Catholic in England at a time when that was not popular. That may be an understatement. It is outside the scope of this article to fully explore that history. Suffice it to say that 1841–the year the second edition of Contrasts, True Principles, and his highly influential article in the Dublin Review were all published–was also the year the first Anglican Tractarian was received into the Roman Catholic Church. In a highly contentious and politically charged landscape defined by denominations, being Catholic meant even the Anglican parties who agreed with him felt the need to distance themselves from him. Pugin's assertions in support of the High Church Anglicans upset many of his Catholic peers and potential patrons.

Meanwhile, Pugin reacted against an architectural culture undergoing a crisis of style. This manifested primarily as gentlemen architects gorging themselves on an indiscriminate buffet of styles. Pugin's objection came from the fact that the styles were often inappropriate for the functions of the buildings to which they were applied as mere decoration. He also objected to the over-application of ornament and the dishonest misapplication of, for example, a steeple to a chair arm.

The nineteenth century crisis of style, which may be seen as the primary instigator of modernism broadly defined, originated in the rise of industrialism with its indeterminate new materials and technologies. This coincided with the separation of ornament from structure and the deterioration of faith in a teleological history of architecture as a progression of styles.

Among those Pugin called out for indiscriminate eclecticism was Sir John Soane.

Sir John Soane's House by roryrory, on Flickr

Here I take exception, as Soane was working from a more developed pedagogical basis, and manipulating spatial experience which foreshadowed the next century of psychological approaches to architecture. Of course Soanne too was popularly misread as effect or style alone and the resulting copies were the true source of Pugin's angst. Personally I find more resonance with Charles Moore's treatment of Soane, but that is certainly generational and based on hindsight. The less skillful applications of archeology as fashion, however, remain at least suspicious.

Finally there was also a distinct set of circumstances surrounding the building of churches which was distinct from the ecclesio-political and architectural cultural forces which impacted it. Industrial demographic shifts led to the need for a significant number of new urban and factory-area churches. Sir George Gilbert Scott referred to the less-than-admirable response to this need as "cheap church mania." This is the practical analog the the cultural impacts of industrialism discussed above.

Additionally, we must also consider Pugin's character, demeanor and tone. He was a gregarious, incessant talker, someone who thought out-loud and wrote out-loud and tended to phrase speculation as final. Given the reactionary basis of Pugin's arguments, the tone and mode of his delivery, and the ecclesial/political forces working against him, it is not surprising that he was dismissed as polemical. Given the challenge to style and ornament of many aspects of subsequent modernisms, it is not surprising that this interpretation has remained.

But is it accurate?

As previously indicated, I do no believe so. In addition to the contextual arguments already outlined, the nature of Pugin's other arguments, if not their tone, reveal that he sought principles and not a style. I will further elaborate on this important aspect in the remainder of the presentation, and will most likely contribute a further part to this series which outlines the surprising nature of Pugin's True Principles, which have unexpected relevance today.

My assertion here is not so much that Pugin's texts had no polemical elements or characteristic, but that as a whole they were not a reductive argument for a single universal style to the exclusion of all others. And that there have been many reasons for others to dismiss or interpret–intentionally or unintentionally–his works as superficial.

Whether or not you agree with this argument, there are still a number of reasons to consider Pugin's relevance to our current situation.

We are accustomed to polemics today in the social and political realms, especially as they approach entertainment and media. More to our point, they permeate the religious discourse on architecture, in the form of easily circulated paperbacks and inflammatory websites. These ideas influence architectural practice by shaping the clients' assumptions of what a church should be, or more often, simply look like. By its nature of preferring clearly defensible niches, polemics related to architecture focus on the external image. Often they are backed up with equally polemical theological over-simplifications.

Our ecclesio-political, architectural, and church-building contexts also mirror the issues to which Pugin reacted. Liturgical and worship practice, including its formal manifestations, continue to as a significant and emblematic point of contention in ecclesial politics and theology.

We are still dealing with the interpretation and implementation of Vatican II, which will permeate if not dominate the dialog with RC churches. In protestant churches, there has been a parallel in what has been called the “worship wars” in many protestant denominations. Both are the result of uneccesarily reductive distinctions between high vs low, contemporary vs traditional. Both also have a significant generational component.

These distinctions are most immediately experienced through the material and cultural expressions of worship. In fact, the act of incarnation of liturgical and worship theologies which may be more complex tend to be simplified in their expression by the constraints of material form.

This makes it the problem of architects; some actively seek out this problem to advance their own partisanship, others ignore it and end up overrun with the malformed opinions of their clients. The architect (or liturgical designer) has a unique position of power in these matters, and if they could rather be a pacifying voice for unity based on complexity, the health of the church would be greatly ameliorated.

Although main-stream architectural culture has largely dismissed questions of style and ornament (though in recent decades this dogmatic modernism has come under scrutiny), the problem of "how now shall we build" is in fact far more complicated that the buffet problem of the 19th century. If anything, technological development and new program types, starchitecture and architecture as fashion, globalization and capitalist consumerism, even critical regionalism and sustainability are all diverse forces which, even when at odds with each other, contribute to the indeterminacy of architectural form.

When we look at the particular practical problems facing church builders and how architects interact with their clients, we see further parallels with Pugin's time. We could well describe the difficulties and short-comings of the vast majority of church buildings as evidence of "cheap church mania." This comes from a theological interest in de-emphasizing the buildings as a reflection of a combination of a particular protestant aesthetic, a preference charity over buildings in financial stewardship, and a response to the increasing social skepticism of organized religion. None of which are in and of themselves necessarily bad, but as in all things a lack of moderation can be dangerous.

Of course another source of "cheap church mania" is the current financial landscape which increases the need for churches (and arguably the need for comforting images of churches) while simultaneously depressing the ability to build them.

So the externalities of our current work of church-building are remarkably analogous to those to which Pugin reacted. In fact, his begat ours. Ours may be more complicated as these contexts intertwine; it is also worth pointing out (lamenting) that we do not have an elevated discourse on the nature of church-building.

Which all comes back to the pregnant potential Pugin presents to once again influence the profession anew. He is a massive figure in the history of church-building, but more difficult and complex than generally assumed. He bridges current polemics, gives cause to question our assumptions of meaningful form (and why the mental image of the Gothic church remains culturally relevant, if not dominant), and to look more closely a the received narrative of modernism.