Smith’s Folly: The British Crown on the Qutb

March 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

The British Crown on the Qutb

Barry Flood described it as “Strawberry Hill Gothic” it is elsewhere described as a Bengali style chhatri… though honestly it looks more like a Rajasthani chhatri, but what do I know? Funnily enough it could be any of the above, or conversely none of the above—the Gothic having been influenced by ‘Moorish’ or ‘Saracenic’ architecture in the first place and the British Indo-Saracenic being an ill defined ‘style’ that combined elements of Classical, Gothic and South Asian architecture. That is to say it would be difficult to describe it whether you attributed the style to an academically correct interpretation of the British Gothic—a style that had travelled steadily through time and space, slowly accruing  influence and finally appearing as ‘custom’ in the British Isles OR if you described it as a Soane-ish syncretism (a mish mash of architectural styles pulled together from Britain’s expansive and diverse empire). In any case the Smith folly was seen by many as a distasteful addition to the Qutb Minar, which after its completion by Feroz Shah in the 14th century suffered a bunch of damage as the result of lightning strikes and a strong earthquake in 1803. The British Raj, unhappy with the appearance of an unfinished Minar commissioned Major Robert Smith (architect of Kashmiri Gate and St. John’s Church) to design a new topper—which he referred to as a ‘conjectural restoration’. It was from the get go a controversial design, and on account of its apparent distastefulness  it was removed by Lord Hardinge in 1832. Today the Qutb is topped by a lightning rod (which absorbs potential damage by lighting to the Minar itself).

This inability to trace the architectural provenance of Smith’s funny toppper weirdly enough reminded me of Reyner Banham’s “New Brutalism” article that he wrote for the Architectural Review in December of 1955.

Introduce an observer into any field of forces, influences or communications and that field becomes distorted. It is common opinion that Das Kapital has played old harry with capitalism, so that Marxists can hardly recognize it when they see it, and the wide-spread diffusion of Freud’s ideas has wrought such havoc with clinical psychology that any intelligent patient can make a nervous wreck of his analyst. What has been the influence of contemporary architectural historians on the history of contemporary architecture?

They have created the idea of a Modern Movement—this was known even before Basil Taylor took up arms against false historicism—and beyond that they have offered a rough classification of the ‘isms’ which are the thumb-print of Modernity into two main types: One, like Cubism, is a label, a recognition tag, applied by critics and historians to a body of work which appears to have certain consistent principles running through it; the other, like Futurism, is a banner, a slogan, a policy consciously adopted by a group of artists, whatever the apparent similarity or dissimilarity of their products….

Is Art-History to blame for this? Not in any obvious way, but in practically every other way. One cannot begin to study the New Brutalism without realizing how deeply New Art-History (the ‘New,’ by the way, Banham writes elsewhere can be traced to Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism) has bitten into progressive English architectural thought.

Now, when Samuel Swinton Jacob was assembling his Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details  between the years of 1890 and 1913 the disciplines of Architecture History and Architecture were not yet separate entities. There were no ‘-isms’ or movements—only styles identified, though maintaining the ‘purity’ of those styles never seemed to be a concern—the details in the portfolio were never presented as organic or harmonic wholes but as a collection of interchangeable parts. And perhaps, excepting the fact that the Portfolio took advantage of modern reproduction techniques architectural ‘composition’ has always carried on in this manner… only appearing as organic wholes because they are, in fact whole. ANYHOW the Portfolio wasn’t a means of studying for its own sake, but rather assembled as a sourcebook for new architecture. That is to say we can’t speak of ‘influence’ here because the disciplines at this point were one and the same. Jacob’s architectural work was the direct result of his academic interests just as it was for Julien Guadet, though Guadet’s ‘rational’ systematization of architectural principles  in his Eléments et Théories de l’Architecture would be totally other to Jacob’s sourcebook for architectural assemblage.  My larger point is… HOW do we read a building… now that history’s caught up with production… now that we live within a moment of superior historical consciousness (I would take ‘superior’ very lightly here)??? Why do origins, provenances, epistemes matter in this context?

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