Mr Barry's War
This is the account of Charles Barry’s monumental struggle with byzantine bureaucracy and highly-opinionated MPs and peers to achieve in stone and wood the building for which he won that famous architectural competition after the destruction by fire of the medieval Palace of Westminster in 1834.
It is a story that has been related previously, notably in Sir Barnett Cocks’ Mid-Victorian Masterpiece (1977). Caroline Shenton’s re-telling is in quite a different style, which may be said to equate with a literary version of a drama-documentary or biopic. The relationship between Barry and Augustus Pugin, his art architect, is treated extensively and sympathetically, and the interactions of the government department (the Office of Woods and Forests, here for some reason truncated to Office of Woods), the hapless architects, and the often contradictory committees of the two separate Houses, are well rehearsed.
Any major building or project to be paid for out of the public purse may attract controversy, and of course that applies in trumps to a building to be occupied by those very guardians of public money themselves. It was seen in our own time in the building of the Scottish parliament. Caroline Shenton deals very thoroughly with this sometimes forgotten aspect of building the Palace of Westminster.
Heroes and villains are as much part of this narrative as any detective story. The interposition of the self-styled heating and ventilation expert, Dr David Boswell Reid, is dealt with as the terrible irritation and waste of money it was. The relief of Barry in a letter when Reid was dismissed, quoted by Shenton, becomes as palpable to the reader as it did to Sir Charles: ‘it will add at least 10 years to my life’. It did not. As the author relates, Barry died of a stroke in 1860, only seven years later.
A major strength of a work of such depth of research as this should be its illustrations. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. Many of the black and white engravings, architectural drawings and facsimiles are printed in the text block, many in too small a format, and are made unclear or in some cases spoiled, by bleed-through of the text below on the unsuitable paper. There is a central art section on coated paper for the colour illustrations, but here again the author has been let down by her designer: the format of most of the plates is simply too small, and the wide margins waste a great deal of the pages.
In all, this is a very worthwhile addition to the bookshelves of aficionados of Victorian design and architecture, and those fascinated by the Palace, which so swiftly became a symbol not only of parliamentary democracy, but of Britain itself. It is also a cautionary tale for any practitioner who may have to work for public institutions.
This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 149, published in May 2017. It was written by Chris Pond, who worked for 35 years at Parliament, and is now an independent historical and architectural writer.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Architectural styles.
- Bletchley Park restoration.
- Historic environment.
- IHBC articles.
- Millennium Dome.
- Palace of Westminster.
- Post-war rebuilding.
- Royal Ordnance Factories.
- Scottish parliament.
- Second world war heritage at sea.
- The Dukes of Normandy and the second world war.
- The Institute of Historic Building Conservation.
The Conservation Hierarchy is a new framework developed by the University of Oxford to help construction projects achieve Biodiversity Net Gain.
Jacqueline Hughes, senior risk analyst at Equib, in pbctoday discusses how project managers for town centre developments can get their risk management strategies right.
A new paper from the Adam Smith Institute argues that the problem with the High Street has been totally misunderstood, saying that we need to reform restrictive planning rules and reject a policy of managed decline to reinvigorate our town centres.
The Whole Life Cost of Energy (WLCoE) calculator – issued by government in BETA form – is intended to help building owners and operators to understand the full financial cost of the energy their buildings use, and welcomes feedback
New research published by Historic England (HE) shows the value of heritage to England’s economy as it contributes to economic prosperity and growth through jobs in the heritage and construction sectors and from tourism.
Investigations have begun into what caused part of Chester’s Roman city wall to collapse during construction work.
Though conservation professionals' skills in understanding, defining and explaining local character and architecture can help inform new residential design.
Over 500 historic places have been added to the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) in 2019 and Historic England (HE) has showcased 21 highlights.
The K2 prototype telephone box situated outside the Royal Academy in London – built as part of the 1924 competition that gave rise to the iconic design and first listed at Grade II in 1986 – has had its listing upgraded to Grade II*.
The second in a series focusses on developing the Asset Information Model (AIM).
Reflecting issues that will be encountered across the IHBC’s June 2020 Brighton School, think tank Centre for Cities argues for High Street success.
City A.M took a tour of the first apartment to be completed within the original grade II*-listed power station with designer Tim Boyd of Michaelis Boyd – which also designed the interiors for Soho House and the Groucho Club – and Battersea Power Station’s UK sales director Georgia Siri.