19th Century Brutalism – In (Brief) Praise of St. Bartholomew’s, Brighton

Brighton possesses a surfeit of two things: pubs (one for every day of the year, according to local legend) and churches. Unsurprisingly for a city which is essentially a product of the 19th century, the Victorian mania for religious buildings is explicitly manifest almost everywhere. Prior to the 19th century Brighton possessed two such buildings: St. Nicholas’ Church (still in use) and a Nonconformist chapel named Union Chapel (now home to a bar named, aptly, The Font). At the beginning of the 20th century, Brighton’s churches numbered almost 120.


While the vast majority of these churches conform to a recognisable 19th century architectural style – gothic revival, neoclassical, etc. – St. Bartholomew’s Church is utterly unique. Its architect Edmund Scott was, evidently, more than just a technician – he was an artist (as all great architects are, and as all mediocre architects are not). With St. Bartholomew’s, Scott did not merely imitate contemporary architectural conventions; he stripped them down and threw them violently together. His building achieves a remarkable architectural synthesis: the overbearing, dramatic, quasi-maniacal mood of the Modern Gothic (the motifs of which – lancet windows ranged between buttresses for example – are present) is fused with a distinctly neoclassical, Pantheon-esque sense of monumental weight and solidity. What results is more than the sum of its parts: to encounter St. Bartholomew’s church – to explore its interior, or merely to stand in its shadow – is to feel a palpable and thrilling sense of brutality. Almost 100 years before the onset of Brutalism as we know it, here was a structure possessed of uncompromising rectilinearity, a sense of primordial, antediluvian crudity (red bricks appearing as a mass of hewn stone); a refusal to pander to any sense of propriety. It seizes the spectator by the base of the spine: it is, in this way, a work of art – one fit to stand alongside (and perhaps even to rival) the best works of John Vanbrugh or Cuthbert Brodrick. It is, in the words of Pevsner, “one of the most tremendous 19th-century churches in the world”.

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About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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