5 September 2012

Urban Space as Work of Art: Monumental Encounters


1731 map of Birmingham by William Westley depicting the prominent
buildings of the town drawn in 3D. The classical influence had yet to
touch much of the landscape, but towards the end of the century
greater focus was being placed on a variety of new kinds of buildings.





















The metaphor of the city as a work of art is used to examine late eighteenth and early nineteenth century urban and architectural development and change. The concept can be used to explore the veneration of isolated architectural ornaments within the urban landscape and of purposeful picture making during this period. M. Christine Boyer considers how the coming of the railway and then the aeroplane changed the way that we looked at urban space; the railway brought us travelling views, and from the sky urban space could truly be penetrated (and it shocked). From urban space regarded in terms of a work of art the image of the city shifted to the multidimensional panorama; cohesive compositions like a skyline seen differently from every angle; and then, later, to a theatre of parts, disparate sites, contested territories, all different places and times.* Size was also a component in how urban spaces might be viewed, as urban environments grew they became harder to ‘picture’.

Birmingham was not a city during the late Georgian and Regency period, but it was a growing, wealthy and aspirational town, and would have been influenced by the contemporary changes in London especially. The concept of the city as a work of art centres around a sense of composed pictures within the landscape, of pictoral enclosure (such as framing) to enhance a sense of monumentality and it is useful to investigate how Birmingham’s landscape was manipulated during this period to produce a series of monumental encounters. Monuments distinguish what a particular culture gives merit to, but they are also exclusive, as they can only symbolise the ideologies and values of the richest and most powerful. These values include the status, wealth, aspirations and benevolence of those people, military glory, religion, and great achievements or deeds. Monument making is assertive and self-confident, but it also exposes a certain amount of vanity within a culture, and I will in part explore the monument making in Birmingham as part of middle class assertions of superiority; whether that be in their ability to afford new luxuries, to be charitable, to educate themselves and those around them, to be good Christians, to be refined and take part in refined pleasures, or to be industrious and innovative. As Boyer states, the monumental impulse during this period sought, to some degree, to ‘teach and reinforce [a] spirit of thoughtful guidance’.*

This is one aspect of the research included in this blog.

* M. Christine Boyer, The City of Collective Memory

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