Stephen Bayley

Happy birthday Big Ben

Though the moral fabric of Parliament is in tatters, its architecture remains an inspiration. Stephen Bayley celebrates Pugin’s crazy, magnificent clock tower

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Though the moral fabric of Parliament is in tatters, its architecture remains an inspiration. Stephen Bayley celebrates Pugin’s crazy, magnificent clock tower

Boing. That most familiar sound is now 150 years old. Because I am fortunate enough to live near Westminster, I often hear it during solitary moments at night in the bathroom. But, like the rest of the world, I know it even better from radio. At home or abroad, its sombre, magnificent melancholy is both reassuring and — somehow — a little bit disturbing, as time passing always is. In Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf wrote ‘There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable’. In peace and war, trouble and strife, mourning and celebration, here and now, Big Ben reminds us of ourselves. Our permanence and our transitoriness.

‘Big Ben’ is, of course, not the name of that most famous clock tower, the universal symbol of London, but the name of the gigantic bell which hangs in its belfry. The first Big Ben was cast in Warren’s Foundry in Stockton-on-Tees. Warren’s metallurgical reach was beyond its metallurgical grasp and the original bell cracked in October 1857, while undergoing sonic tests in the yard. Its fragments were used for a new casting made in Whitechapel. It rang on 11 July 1859 and ‘The Westminster Chimes’ are adapted from a tune by Handel.

But ‘Big Ben’ has become an eponym for the idiosyncratic 96-metre structure that accommodates it. In an infallible synaesthesia, the sound of the bell immediately evokes an image of the tower and, therefore, of London itself. That even its silhouette is an unambiguous reference to the city teaches important lessons about architectural monuments and their contribution to national identity. As silhouettes, only the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower rival Big Ben (although the Gherkin, I believe, is coming up fast).

No effective formula exists to calculate the value of national identity, so we can safely say it is priceless. Civilisations are remembered, Treasury officials sitting with their grim calculus just opposite Big Ben please note, by the monuments they leave behind, not by the PSBR. Of course, no one today asks what Big Ben cost. No one really knows. Cash price and emotional value are altogether different. But for government officials squeamish about committing to quality, it is worth recording that Big Ben came about not through any very rational procurement process with targets and dignified fallback positions. Instead, it was conceived and executed in an atmosphere of controversy, backbiting and muddle at least as toxic as the witches’ brew of colliding egos and conflicting interests that filled the Millennium Dome. By the time the clock tower was finished in 1860 it was already old-fashioned and those inclined to go tut-tut, tutted.

Talk about muddled briefs. The successful architect Charles Barry won the competition for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster after the catastrophic fire of 16 October 1834, so memorably recorded by Turner. At Manchester City Art Gallery and the Travellers Club in Pall Mall, Barry had already very plainly shown himself to be a classicist of strict formality, but Parliament required a Gothic design: Henry VIII’s chapel was a style-pointer not to be ignored. So Barry put the young Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who had helped him on the gothicky design of King Edward VI’s School in Birmingham, in charge of all metalwork, glass and surface decoration.

The result is one of the most magnificent and curious architectural compromises of all time. The entire Palace of Westminster is a classical composition in that it is, generally, square and regular. It is a big oblong with towers at the corners. Pugin, passing in a rowing boat, his favoured form of transport, said it was ‘all Greek’. Except, that is, in surface finishes as Pugin covered the Greek with Gothic detailing. But more than just surface effect, the conception of the Big Ben clock tower was Pugin’s too. Close up, it is enthralling; as a set-piece it comprises one of the great verticals of the area which include St Margaret’s and the Abbey. Ian Nairn said they fire like a four-cylinder petrol engine, a brutal — if telling — mechanical conceit that would have horrified the pious Pugin.

And as a stern corrective to any wrongheaded notion that creativity can be sensibly managed by accountants, the example of Pugin is central. The architect had the symptoms of hydrargaria, or mercury poisoning. Besides the physically uncomfortable peripheral neuropathy, there were the accompanying memory loss, personality change and mood swings. But isn’t the result magnificent? With quite literally mad endeavour, Pugin decorated archivolts, squints and spandrels. He did not consider reticence. He lovingly detailed fleurons, spirelets, stoups and mullions. Every detail of crockets and crestings, daggers and diapers was painstakingly considered. Nailheads, mouchettes, escutcheons and dogteeth were drawn in meticulous, demented detail. Pugin wrote in February 1852, scarcely coherent through manic overwork and poison: ‘Tomorrow I render all the design for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock’. This curious last expression may be taken to mean he claimed authorship of the rower design.

He favoured brandy with water as a treatment for his disturbances. Eventually, they tried bleeding him with leeches, but he ended-up raving in Bedlam, while Barry was knighted. The question of authorship was, therefore, always confused. Pugin was never completely credited with the clock tower design, but nor did Barry have the neck actually to deny it. Nor claim it as his own. Rosemary Hill, in her magnificent 2007 biography of Pugin, God’s Architect, says there is no doubt that the conception of Big Ben was Pugin’s.

Barry had seen Westminster burning while returning from Brighton by coach. The terrible glow lit up the night sky throughout the south-east. The smell of fire was everywhere. A rather less noble odour currently surrounds Parliament. Indeed, it’s fair comment to say that Parliament needs moral rebuilding in 2009 as urgently as it needed architectural reconstruction after the fire of 1834. ‘Whatever we may think of our members,’ John Betjeman wrote in the Daily Telegraph in May 1957, ‘we all admire the Houses of Parliament’. He meant, of course, the buildings themselves.

And the clock itself? The original brief required the first stroke of the hour to be accurate to within one second. A telegraphic connection to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich kept a continuous check on this. Exemplars of accuracy sit uncomfortably with Parliament this year, but as proof of what a designer of genius can achieve for national prestige, Pugin’s clock tower is unsurpassed. He did it while going mad and careless of budget. There’s a metaphor struggling to escape here.


Stephen Bayley is architecture and design correspondent for the Observer.