Friday, August 24, 2007

The Catholic Herald on Pugin

Brace yourself for an outbreak of Pugin-mania

by the Abbot of Downside

A few years ago the name Pugin would have meant little outside a small circle of enthusiasts for the work of the great 19th-century Catholic architect or critics of the former Lord Chancellor’s expensive taste in wallpapers. With the publication of Rosemary Hill’s brilliant new life I suspect Pugin-mania will become endemic and a new Gothic revival may be just around the corner. One can only hope.

The biography comes at an ideal moment as far as the debate about the future of our historic built environment is concerned. The Catholic Church in England is rediscovering its rich artistic patrimony, in which Pugin played a pivotal role, which could have an important part to play in bringing the people of this country back to their cultural roots and to their senses. The headache inherent in the high maintenance of many of our great church buildings will always be difficult, but I suspect the lack of imagination shown by many in handling the future of these sacred places is the greater problem. Counsels of despair can become a mindset in our hostile secular world.

Pugin’s imagination ran riot in a blaze of colour and Gothic arches, “pointed” rather than Gothic as he preferred, but he was wonderfully visionary in seeing the way in which the building environment reflected the society which constructed them and the way in which good buildings could comfort and change men and women’s hearts. Pugin was no academic historian and lacked the professional’s grasp for dates and complications but he was a masterly social critic who contrasted the inhumanity of his own age with what he perceived as the superiority of the Middle Ages when it came to priorities and individual care. He was a revisionist who disdained the Victorian idea of progress and had no time for the Renaissance. His Catholicism reflected his dual French and English inheritance and owed nothing to Ultramontane models.

The concept of Medieval was a pejorative one for Pugin’s contemporaries as it for many of ours. For the early 19th century it was an irrational and superstitious epoch. In the early 21st century it can appear as undeveloped and pre-scientific. The idealisation of any past age, always a romantic construction based on limited evidence, can be a perilous model, but Pugin reminds us that architecture should be about quality building reflecting an aspirational quality of life. His Medieval model, as contrasted with industrial society, rated service above management, style above economy, care above control. His ideals have been seen as signposts not only towards the welfare state but to the developing social teaching of the Catholic Church which reached its first full maturity at the end of the 19th century.

Pugin’s sensitivity about the use of appropriate materials and traditional skills, taken up and developed by William Morris and others, has a contemporary ring in a world where environmental issues are becoming increasingly urgent and important. Modern architects are learning to be less wasteful in energy and carbon emissions a century and a half after Pugin pointed the way. More significantly, most of us are beginning to see how important it is that our living spaces respect our diminishing resources and our perceived obligation to be stewards of God’s creation. What we need perhaps is a new Pugin who can contrast our wasteful ways with those of an ideal, balanced, environmentally friendly world. We need someone with the passion, imagination and cheek of that great Victorian architect to move us towards a fully articulated Catholic understanding of the environment. In the Catholic desire to proclaim a culture of life the living world should not be ignored.

The Rt Rev Aidan Bellenger is the Abbot of Downside
Copyright, The Catholic Herald

Source: The Catholic Herald - Britain's leading Catholic newspaper

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