The Edwardian Baroque Anticipated the Architecture of Global Capitalism

A new book shows how the grand designs of Edwardian architects expressed the anxieties and illusions of their time. Imperial confidence in the peaceful integration of the world ran alongside fears of decline and collapse, echoing the dilemmas of our own age.

Illustration of the Central Criminal Court in London from the early twentieth century. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Edwardians have always haunted the liberal imagination. In a classic book of 1935, George Dangerfield argued that Edward VII’s reign ushered in The Strange Death of Liberal England. In the years just before World War I, the propertied men who ran the United Kingdom and its empire feared that both were about to collapse. South African Boers defied Britain in battle, Irish and Indian nationalists demanded independence, and women the vote. Heated arguments about how to pay for a welfare state and for rearmament against the aggressive German Reich exploded fiscal orthodoxies. Conservatives flirted with unpopular tariffs on food imports and populist Liberals terrified the aristocracy by demanding heavy wealth taxes instead.

If Dangerfield exaggerated the suddenness with which a centrist tradition can implode, then Brexit has given the Edwardian crisis a strange sense of present-day relevance. Brexiteers seem to have repeated the doomed arrogance of Edwardian imperialists in seeking tighter ties with Britain’s former settler colonies and in squaring up against China. Other parallels are even less cheering. Britain’s flatlining growth has revived fears of falling behind in a multipolar world. Then as now, London and its plutocratic, hedonistic elite dominated the nation and appeared to be divorced from its concerns. Alex Bremner’s wonderfully assured and richly illustrated Building Greater Britain: Architecture, Imperialism, and the Edwardian Baroque Revival, c.1885–1920 is therefore a timely book. Bremner proposes buildings as an overlooked source for the study of Edwardian angst, one which he suggests might lead us to “ponder afresh the dilemmas of our own age.”

The Baroque Revival

Bremner offers not a total history of Edwardian architecture, but an evocation of its most significant style, the “Baroque revival.” What makes an Edwardian building baroque? It is hard to give a precise answer, not least because the architects of the day maintained that a certain breeziness about rules was an English virtue. Baroque buildings were often described as “Anglo Classic” or in the “Grand Manner” or “Renaissance” style. They went up before and for years after the actual reign of Edward VII (1901–10). But they undeniably had family resemblances. They tended to be monumental edifices such as town halls, colonial parliaments, law courts, or memorials to the sainted Queen Victoria, although there were also baroque banks and railway stations.

Their patriotic architects, the hearty alumni of minor public schools, revered Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren as great Englishmen who in the seventeenth century had used the principles of classical architecture to express the national virtues of virility and sobriety. Baroque buildings were faced with stone, preferably the pale Portland stone employed at Greenwich Hospital and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The lower courses of stonework were often rusticated to express a manly toughness. They were crowned with domes in tribute to St. Paul’s, a church which had become a synecdoche for the British Empire. Their walls within and without were busy with allegorical sculptures, while interiors made lavish use of colored marbles and costly hardwoods.

Although Bremner neatly itemizes these formal characteristics, he insists that the style is better understood as a cultural or psychological phenomenon — a kind of “architectural chest beating” which expressed the brittle arrogance of the British psyche. Baroque buildings quieted doubts about the viability of the British world system through flamboyant displays of strength. In that sense, they were less “Edwardian” than simply imperial, not least because they were found throughout the empire. That should be no surprise. Although the settler colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa were becoming autonomous dominions (with the exception of the last), their citizens were thorough Edwardians, who looked to Britain and its king-emperors as the guarantor of their security.

The future of “greater Britain” appeared to be particularly fragile in the Pacific, where anxieties about Japan’s ambitions and racist panics over Asian immigration produced imperial unease. This made “Anglo-Classic” buildings beacons of reassurance. In a speech at Wellington on Dominion Day in 1907, with the half-finished Public Trust Office Building as a backdrop, the prime minister of New Zealand assured his audience that they would “resist to the last man any intention of the Eastern horde, which, by mixing with our people, would produce in this beautiful British country a race of half-breeds.”

The Spirit of Legalism and Imperial Crimes

The baroque also marked Britain’s pledge to rule with justice and freedom. The construction of court houses proclaimed the “spirit of legalism” which was supposed to pervade Greater Britain. In London, the Central Criminal Court — the “new” Old Bailey — arose as a visual pair for St. Paul’s Cathedral, its dome topped with a figure of Lady Justice, whose outstretched arms recalled a Christian cross. Although Newgate Prison had been demolished to make way for the court, the court’s architect William Mountford had emulated the prison’s forbidding proportions and even recycled much of its stonework. Once complete, the court was a template for smaller courthouses around the British world.

This quest to symbolize British order quickened the pulse of some architects, stimulating pursuits conceived in private dreamworlds. The diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, an idiosyncratic classicist as well as a monomaniacal white supremacist, sent his protégé Herbert Baker on a sketching tour of Greece to invent an architecture for South Africa. He came back sharing Rhodes’s belief that the British should build versions of the Acropolis on the veldt, massive structures on its kopje hills, which invoked awe from a distance.

When the Union of South Africa formed at the conclusion of the Boer War, Baker seized the chance to build his masterpiece on the rocky Meintjeskop overlooking Pretoria. Linked by a massive colonnade, the two towers of his Union Buildings symbolized the Dutch majority and its British overlords, paired together in their domination over the subjugated native peoples of South Africa. The latter were to have only an open-air meeting place, so that they need not ever enter “the offices of the white man.”

This imaginative projection of force often misfired, particularly when metropolitan architects did not understand the climates for which they were designing. Aston Webb had to rethink his grandiose blueprint for Hong Kong’s Supreme Court when locals pointed out that it would do nothing to shield its public from the fierce sunshine. Although Webb’s alterations made the building a successful essay in “tropical Baroque,” it did little to persuade the Chinese population that British justice was not stacked against them. Similarly, by the time the town hall in Johannesburg was inaugurated to the strains of Edward Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory,” the stonework was already pocked with bullets fired during a Boer rebellion against British authority.

Imperial Connectivity

There was, though, more to the Edwardian baroque than ineffectual posturing. Many of Bremner’s buildings were not just monuments but machines, which made imperial administration run better. Buildings such as William Young’s War Offices on Whitehall accommodated the black-suited armies of mustachioed clerks whose industrious sobriety was expressed in the “manicured flourishes of ornament” on its facade.

In 1898, parliament extended the penny post to the empire in a move to make it the symbol “of imperial unity” and “Anglo-Saxon brotherhood.” Within five years, the weight of letters sent from Britain to the colonies had increased by five million pounds. A new General Post Office in Farringdon — the aptly named King Edward Building — supported this leap in imperial connectivity. It was constructed from fireproof ferroconcrete and used sophisticated electrical lighting to assist its workers in sorting the post. Electric lifts moved mounds of post around within the building, and a dedicated underground railway shifted them to branch offices. Once dispatched abroad, those letters arrived at similarly grandiose and efficient post offices from Winnipeg to Wellington.

Baroque decorative schemes were intended not to cloak but to emblazon this techno-futurist promotion of imperial unity. Bremner’s analysis of Electra House on Moorgate makes that point brilliantly. It was the headquarters of the Eastern Telegraph Company, which controlled the “all red line around the world,” the web of British undersea cables which became critical to imperial security.

In the metaphors of contemporary theorists, cable networks were nerves through which imperial bodies flexed their force. Electra House was the “brain” for this organic infrastructure, and guides to the building duly extolled its high-tech features, such as the laboratory nestled in the drum of its baroque dome. Its “geopolitical semantics” were as remarkable as its technological clout. On top of that dome, four atlas figures held up a bronze sphere with a globe at its center.

Capital and the Historical Turnstile

The exuberant semiotics of Electra House suggest that parallels between the Edwardian world and the shrinking horizons of Brexit Britain are more suggestive than accurate. Edwardian efforts to future-proof the empire had little in common with the despairing efforts of aging voters to “take back control,” not least because Edwardians felt less boxed in than Bremner suggests.

As the Cassandras of imperial decline often complained, it was hard to get the British public’s attention. Threats to Britain’s position seemed not so much to mount as to come and go. Britain formed an alliance with Japan, its most menacing competitor in the Pacific. In Europe, before they were overtaken by the July Crisis and the outbreak of World War I, British diplomats had begun to back out of confrontation with Germany. Many intellectuals, particularly those of a religious bent, were global idealists who believed that the spiritual and cultural integration of the world would end destructive rivalry between empires.

A prime example of Edwardian optimism was confidence in global finance. London benefited hugely from the invisible earnings which flowed from its overseas investments. Although capital exports were hardly limited to British colonies, there were close links between investment decisions and sentimental Britannic nationalism. The baroque style lent itself to the construction of banks, insurance offices, and port buildings, such as the ornate headquarters of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in Liverpool. Its solidity and massiveness suggested the stability of imperial enterprises. So did its allegorical flourishes. The personifications of Justice, Truth, Temperance, and Prudence carved onto the headquarters of the United Provident Association on the Strand reassured investors that their money was in safe hands, wherever it ended up.

Edwardian baroque was then more than an “aesthetic bulwark” against real imperial decline, the English analogue to the mustard-colored railway stations and opera houses which demarcate the now-vanished Habsburg Empire. It was an architecture of capitalism, which both facilitated and depicted global flows of wealth. That explains why the directors of the Bank of England chose Herbert Baker to rebuild their premises after World War I. Critics of Baker’s gigantic edifice, which was only completed in 1942, detected in it the “bracing whiff of the veldt” — many of its stylistic touches were imported from earlier projects in South Africa and British India. The imperial Grand Manner was appropriate for this temple to the gold standard.

Perhaps what Bremner calls the “genetic residue” of the Edwardian baroque can still be detected, not just in the neoclassical office blocks which grew up around the bank in the interwar years, but in the very idea of the pompous headquarters, which is still with us today. To be fair, today’s multinationals no longer trick themselves out with columns or domes, but from Toronto to Sydney their offices are still “brimming with semiotic intent.” Their steroidal bulk and height proclaim that capital (though no longer the British Empire) rules the world.