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The Victorian Era: Where Ornamentation Met Imagination in Architecture

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

"Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late."

Thomas Sowell.

Alexandra Park, Auckland New Zealand Photography by Tim Butler-Jones for Studio-4 Photography

When I was young, the giant Victorian buildings that I grew up with in the UK, in the 80’s (Under Thatcher) made me feel very small: the high ceilings, the heavy masonry, the acoustics and the ornate decorations gave one a sense that this was a serious place where one must be on their best behaviour. They were monumental: places that had been around long before me, and would remain long after I had gone. Anyone who stood in a place like the Palace of Westminster, the Royal Albert Hall or Paddington Station, built by the peerless Isambard Kingdom Brunell, would tell you the same.

Coming to New Zealand in my early twenties, you could see the same style replicated but with subtle differences that, combined with New Zealand's unique flora and fauna and its harsh sunlight gave a whole new take to how I interpreted Victorian Architecture. Obvious, though it is to say, it’s something I regularly try to incorporate into my street photography. With that said, I recently drove past Alexandra Park and was moved so much as to stop and have a wander ‘round. As is often the case recently with many of the Victorian buildings, it was looking a little ragged around the edges. The old stands had graffiti on them, with broken glass everywhere and it was in need of a lick of paint. Juxtaposed with the new shiny Alexandra Park Apartments development, it just seemed unloved, a relic.

Alexandra Park, Auckland New Zealand Photography by Tim Butler-Jones for Studio-4 Photography

The Victorian era spanned from the early 19th century to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. It was a time of immense change and innovation. One of the lasting legacies of this period is the architecture that graces many cities around the world. Victorian architecture is celebrated for its intricate ornamentation and the skilled craftsmen who brought these grand designs to life. Auckland's Old Government House (1856) serves as a shining example of this architectural opulence, where craftsmanship and ornamentation converged to create a visual feast for the eyes. During this era, architects and builders drew inspiration from historical styles such as Gothic, Renaissance, and Queen Anne, blending them to create unique and elaborate designs.

Ornamentation, a hallmark of Victorian architecture, played a pivotal role in defining the style. Buildings were adorned with intricate details—elaborate cornices, decorative trim, stained glass windows, and ornate ironwork. These embellishments transformed ordinary structures into works of art, reflecting the prosperity and aspirations of the time. The craftsmen of the Victorian era were the unsung heroes behind these architectural masterpieces. Skilled artisans in various trades, such as stonemasonry, carpentry, and stained glass work, brought the architect's vision to life. Their craftsmanship was characterised by precision, attention to detail, and a dedication to excellence.

Victorian architecture continues to shape the skylines of cities across the globe. From the ornate row houses of London to the grand mansions of San Francisco, its influence is still evident today. It reflects not only the aesthetics of the time but also the values of the Victorians. The aspirations of Victorian society were notably different from those of today, and this may prove to be the key to the eventual demise of some of my favourite buildings in Auckland in the near future.

Victorian society was deeply concerned with notions of morality, virtue, and society was highly stratified, with rigid class divisions. Before the Victorian era movement wasn’t just restricted to class, as the vast majority of people in Britain lived their whole lives without going more than twenty-odd miles from the town they were born in. The Victorian era was marked by the Industrial Revolution, which brought about rapid urbanisation and technological advancements, including the railways and steamships but people had nowhere near the freedom to move about as they do today. People seek opportunities for personal and professional growth in an increasingly interconnected global society.

Alexandra Park, Auckland New Zealand Photography by Tim Butler-Jones for Studio-4 Photography

The aspirations of Victorian society were shaped by the values, norms, and challenges of their time. Today's aspirations reflect a more diverse, inclusive, and individualistic society that has been shaped by social progress, technological advancements, and changing cultural norms that were facilitated by the Victorians. While some values, such as morality and virtue, remain constant, the context and specific goals of aspiration have evolved to meet the needs and values of the modern world.

And yet as I reflect on the walks I’ve taken around Auckland, and seen bricks and mortar replaced with glass and steel I wonder how our new architecture reflects us, and our society. Tough and transparent? I’ll leave that one for the philosophers. What I will say is that the Victorians built their buildings to be grand, tough, and to stand the test of time. That’s why we’ll always be fascinated with the Victorians and their period of history. What do I see when I look at most modern buildings? The word I get is “Temporary”.

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