Sunday, March 06, 2016

Pugin's Pictorial Attack on Utilitarianism

A. W. N. Pugin was one of the major architects (pun intended) of the Gothic Revival in nineteenth-century England. In 1836 he published a book whose full title is worth putting down, Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day. Shewing the Present Decay of Taste. Accompanied by Appropriate Text. It was intended to be an argument for Gothic principles in architecture, especially Church architecture. The parallel is not merely verbal; the most striking part of the text is its rhetorical argument in pictures, in which a medieval building is contrasted with its modern counterpart to show, as the subtitle says, the present decay of taste. The most biting of these picture-rhetoric subarguments is that of Contrasted Residences for the Poor, in which he contrasts a poor-house drawn up on Christian and monastic principles with one drawn up on Bentham's utilitarian principles. It's worth looking at in detail (you can get full screen at the above link and use the magnifying glass icon to zoom in). The pictorial parallel is a caricature, not wholly fair to the utilitarians -- but you can in fact go through Pugin's caricature and identify elements that clearly are derived from Bentham and utilitarian reforms by the Benthamites. He is being tendentious for the purposes of his rhetorical argument, but he isn't simply making things up.

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