A. W. N. Pugin: God’s Architect?

An Interview with David Lewis

by David Lewis, appearing in Volume 42

The Houses of Parliament in London were rebuilt after a fire by architects Charles Barry and A. W. N. Pugin, 1840-1876. Photo: wikimedia.org/Public Domain

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin remains important as one of the founders of the Gothic revival and one who thought about the relationship of architecture and social questions. He argued aggressively, as the title of his book 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 suggests. Before he died in 1852 at the age of forty, he designed dozens of houses, churches, and institutional buildings (particularly convents). His most famous design is the clock tower in London known as “Big Ben.”

Historian David Lewis recently published A. W. N. Pugin, the first monograph on Pugin’s architecture in fifty years, and edited the Pugin Society’s journal, True Principles. He teaches at Oxford. Duncan Stroik, Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, is the editor of Sacred Architecture.


Duncan Stroik: Unfortunately, Pugin died at forty years old. How did he do so much in such a short time—all the books, all the controversies, all the buildings? 


David Lewis: Pugin had tremendous energy and tremendous zeal. He was one of those people who worked from the time he got up until he went to sleep. The Victorian doctors, when he died, said that he had worked himself to death. 

The secret to his architectural practice and his prodigious output was his skill in measured drawing and quick drafting. Even his contemporaries, in a time when everyone was trained in hand drawing and hand drafting, felt that he was extremely quick. 

His father made a living in drawing architecture and landscape scenes and in measuring Gothic ruins. Pugin helped him with that from the age of eight, particularly because children were good at getting into small spaces and climbing up to the top of ruins with a tape measure or a yardstick to get measurements. That daily practice meant that, by the time Pugin was an adult, he could produce drawings very quickly. 

He did not produce architectural drawings with the level of detail that we produce today. He had trusted craftsmen who could execute a building from a drawing of the façade and a drawing of the plan. All Pugin had to do was send a few drawings. He could sit down and draw out a church, supposedly in just a few hours, fold it up, stick it in the mail, and send it off to a client.


And make some money too. For a forty-year-old who did not come from a trained architecture background he did pretty well financially, didn’t he?


He was comfortable; he was successful. He made a lot of his money designing furniture, ecclesiastical fittings and furnishings, and doing sort-of decorating work. There was more money in that than in designing churches.

Pugin’s primary goal in designing churches was furthering the revival of Catholicism in England. He often gave his time for free for the church commissions. He felt that with the churches, it was worth his while because the primary purpose of his being in architecture was to revive the faith.


Saint Giles in Cheadle is the first Catholic church that Pugin designed.


And that was in part because he believed that the restoration of Gothic architecture and Gothic culture, medieval culture, would cure the ills of England and cure the ills of the Reformation, which had brought so many problems to England.


In Pugin’s mind, the Reformation was to blame for England’s materialism and industrialism and for the Dickensian condition of the Victorian cities. Pugin conflated a lot of things with the Reformation. 

He conflated classical architecture with the Reformation just because they both came about at the same time. There is no intrinsic relationship there. It is a materialist heresy to say that only one type of architecture can be appropriate for Christian churches.

Pugin’s hope was that by returning to the last point in which Britain was a Catholic country, the end of the Middle Ages, and picking up the arts and culture of that time, modernizing them for the Victorian era and re-establishing them, Britain could emerge as a new society—a more just, religious, happy and beautiful place. He thought that Gothic architecture could cure all ills. 

Even in decoration, he thought a Gothic chair in somebody’s living room would help make them a better person, would help encourage Christian values in the living rooms of middle class London, and help to encourage a return to Catholicism. He hoped that his Gothic chairs would convert Protestants. 


Did this work? Did he have people that were drawn to Catholicism or back to Christianity through his work? 


It is hard to know, but the answer is essentially yes. Pugin’s writing and his design work electrified a lot of Victorians. He had a tremendous influence on the architects of his age. 

He launched the Gothic revival, even though there had been Neo-Gothicists before Pugin came along. His charisma and his enthusiasm inspired generations of architects. 

He also provided the material trappings of the Catholic revival in England, the new buildings for the re-established religious orders, the chalices for Mass. He provided the look and the style of the revival and he sparked enthusiasm in a lot of new priests. 

He taught at the seminary in Ascott. He was the professor of “Ecclesiastical Antiquities” and preached the Gothic revival to all of the new Catholic priests in England. 


So his impact was very strong in the Catholic Church, which was a small but growing group in England. Was it generally accepted by Catholics?


Well, that is the paradox of Pugin. The Catholic hierarchy did not approve of all of Pugin’s ideas. His demand, for instance, that they return to Sarum, or medieval, liturgy, was not anything that the modern Catholic Church was interested in doing. 

Pugin wanted chancel screens, and they were not in keeping with the tenets of the Counter-Reformation, with the adoration of the host and the idea of the Mass being visible to the people. 

Pugin rejected all of the liturgical changes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Church obviously did not reject those things. They were on the cusp of excommunicating Pugin at one point because he was so adamant.


And he was influential. Is that why they would excommunicate him, because he was publicly saying all that?


He was publicly influential and there was a big group of English Catholics who were interested in his ideas and who were creating a Puginian Catholicism. Pugin believed very much in what he called “English Catholicism,” a Catholicism that had ancient roots and was in communion with Rome but was not Roman per se.

That worried the Catholic hierarchy. It worried [John Henry] Cardinal Newman, who started out as a tremendous fan of Pugin’s and his first Catholic church, Saint Giles in Cheadle. 

Newman had himself built a Gothic revival church at Littlemore in 1837, even before Pugin. But he came to see Pugin as a sort of heretic because of his ideas. 

I think he always liked his architecture, but Pugin was obstructionist, in the sense that he particularly condemned the oratory in Birmingham and the oratory in London for being classical. He made a stink in the Catholic press about having orchestras and modern music at Mass. He was creating divisions in a Church that needed to be unified in its mission. 

The ultimate paradox of Pugin is that he ends up being more influential on Anglican design. He spawns a whole generation of Anglican, high Victorian, Gothic revivalists: G. E. Street, George Gilbert Scott Sr., William Burges, and others.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Gothic was mainstream. That was almost entirely thanks to Pugin. 

Architects would go on pilgrimages to Cheadle to see his church there. People came from mainland Europe to see it as well. Church architects from Belgium, France, and Germany, and the editors of the church architecture periodicals came to see it.


The Medieval Court exhibit in the Crystal Palace, 1851. Image: wikimedia.org/Metropolitan Museum of Art Public Domain


How did helping Charles Barry design and ornament the Houses of Parliament affect his reputation?


It was a very successful and popular building. Yet people did not like the fact that Pugin was involved with it.


Because he was Roman Catholic. A convert, in fact. You are not really British if you are Roman Catholic.


He was part French and he was Roman Catholic. They did not feel that he was patriotic. Although Pugin was fanatically nationalistic, he insisted that Gothic was the national style of Britain and that classicism was a foreign imposition. So I don’t think that Pugin’s involvement in the Houses of Parliament helped his personal reputation very much. 

What did was the Crystal Palace at the great exhibition of 1851, where Pugin developed the most popular exhibit in the whole show, which was the Medieval Court, right at the center. This display showed Pugin’s vision of what the modern Victorian city could be. It sold affordable Pugin-designed items such as plates and cups. Anybody could take this new Gothic revival style home. 


How much did Pugin’s work influence the United States?


American architects were aware of Pugin on some level. As the Gothic revival took hold here, it was often the product of English ideas coming from Pugin—the brownstone Gothic revival in New York City in the 1840s and 50s, for example. 

The ideas that arches should be structural rather than plaster, and that the buildings should evoke the Middle Ages more directly than the previous Gothic revival did, come from Pugin to some degree. 


Interior of Saint Augustine Church in Ramsgate by Pugin, 1852. Photo: wikimedia.org/The National Churches Trust


Which are the top buildings of his we should know about? 


Saint Augustine in Ramsgate, his own church, which he built next to his house, the Grange. Ramsgate is one of his most interesting churches because he is his own client. So he can do whatever he wants. Whenever he has money coming in he puts it towards the church, but it took a while. He did not finish it. 

Ramsgate also shows you how he’s thinking right before he dies. He moves away from the fanatical medievalism and the structural purity, and towards more decorative effects that are meant to evoke emotion, towards a much richer spatial experience. 

You enter the church of Saint Augustine from a corner. You have to move across the aisle at a diagonal to get anywhere. It is not the very linear planning of his earlier churches, where you have the baptistry in the back and the altar in the center at the front, and you move up and down the central axis. 


Interior of the Princeton University Chapel by Ralph Adams Cram, 1928. Photo: flickr.com/David Nicholls


Pugin coined the idea that Gothic was the true Christian architecture, and I know lots of people who believe that. It is difficult to argue with them. It is so emotionally held, and they believe, like Pugin, that it has theologically been proven. 

What does that mean, to be “true Christian architecture”? Does it mean that the other types of architecture used by Christians before the Gothic, a period of 1,100 to 1,200 years, and the architecture after the Gothic, 300 to 400 years, is debased? 


Pugin felt that Gothic architecture was the ultimate Christian architecture because it was developed by Christians in Europe as a Christian architecture. He felt that classicism was a pagan architecture that was borrowed by Christians, but that its forms were created for pagan worship and therefore was not as fit for purpose as Gothic architecture. 

Like many Victorians, he wanted to read an allegorical reading into Gothic design—the pointed arch points towards heaven; the clarity of structure is honest and true as opposed to the sham of covering things up. [John] Ruskin and other people take it further and say that the Gothic ornament, because it is created by individual craftspeople and each capital is different, is more ennobling of the worker than classicism, in which details are repetitive. 

In the late nineteenth and twentieth century, Pugin’s ideas really took hold in America. Ralph Adams Cram, the quintessential American Gothic revivalist, who did the campus at Princeton and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, was strongly influenced by Pugin’s ideas. He even had a statue of Pugin carved into the mantel piece of his office in Boston because he was particularly electrified by this idea of a spiritualized Christian industrial society, that arts and architecture could infuse modern life with religious purpose. 


It still is very appealing to people, especially churchgoers. Aesthetically they are drawn to Gothic. When you mention the great cathedrals of Europe, everybody thinks Gothic. They do not think Romanesque or early Christian, they do not think of Renaissance or Baroque, yet there are plenty of other cathedrals. What about Saint Peter’s or Sacré-Cœur or Saint Paul’s in London? 

Americans who are very learned about other things subscribe to Pugin and reject other styles that have been used for churches. It is disheartening to me that someone  interested in architecture, art, or culture would reject 1,600 out of 2,000 years. 


That is absolutely right. It is better to have a pluralistic view of these things. Any sort of narrowing is not particularly helpful. 


To say those kinds of outrageous things put him on the front cover of the newspapers, and it made people read him. 


Absolutely. It was a very clear system of ideas. You always knew where Pugin stood and what he stood for, which was a Christian society in which the poor are better cared for, in which the pollution, oppression, and problems of the Victorian industrial city, as he experienced it in the 1830s and 40s, were taken care of. 

People wanted to address these problems. They wanted to rein in this uncontrollable explosion of population growth and industrialization in the major cities. Pugin presented an appealing idea of how that could be done, and he was the first person to really do so—to project this utopian vision that is based in art and architecture onto the modern city.


We tend to think of him as being very influential on us in the twentieth century for that reason. The architects of the modernist movement also took that as their goal, to re-design society and therefore cure all these ills and problems in modern society. 

Pugin is kind of a father of that thinking. The modernists such as Le Corbusier, who proposed redesigning Paris by tearing down most of the city and putting up high rises—would they have known Pugin directly or has it already become mainstream by the twentieth century?


It is mainstream by then, and it is Gothic revival and education that implants this design determinism into the thinking of Gropius and Corbusier. They went to architecture school at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. They got a lot of this type of theory, whether directly from Pugin or not, but certainly from the architectural thinkers shaped by Pugin. 

We like to give Pugin credit as being a father of a lot of these ideas. 


He is not the exclusive creator of these ideas. He was influential because of the impact of his writings. It is the mistakes that Pugin made in his architectural thinking—particularly the idea that architecture and religion and society are all somehow the same thing, overlapping with each other—that the die-hard international modernists also make in a very religious, fanatical, dogmatic kind of way. 

However, Pugin was not a proto-modernist. He did not fit the international modernist ideal. Pugin believed very strongly that emotion was an important part of architecture. The human response was an important part of architecture, which is something that the modernists were not comfortable with. They wanted to purge that subjective element, the idea of architectural beauty. 

Pugin saw his architecture as a celebration of creation. You go to church to see and smell and experience religion, which is not exactly the way that international modernists are thinking about it. Pugin certainly would not have been on board with the idea that a steel and glass box was a good church space.


A design for a rood screen by Pugin. Image: Public Domain


How much is he influenced by actual Gothic buildings that he’s studying during the time? 


He is very interested in actual Gothic buildings. He is studying actual Gothic buildings for his entire career, definitely from his childhood on. That is the other reason Pugin becomes so successful. He is the only architect in 1830s Britain who can do Gothic detailing that actually looks medieval. He understands the system because he studied the buildings. 

Everyone else is trained as a classicist. When you have Barry or [Charles Robert] Cockerell doing Gothic, it looks Georgian. Everything is symmetrical. The windows are all lined up. They are all the same size, and they have a point on the top in their sashes. But Pugin understood Gothic as a system and knew how to do the detailing. 

Pugin also believed in the, shall we say, truth of symbol and the truth of ornament. The idea of stripping ornament away would have horrified him because ornament is part of the message, part of the reason that Gothic architecture is a good thing. 

When you’re living in a Gothic house and you have a carved stone angel at the end of the corridor or on the corner of your house, every time you see it, it takes your mind back to God. It reminds you of your religious duties. It reminds you to be a good person. 

One of Pugin’s major publications besides Contrasts was the giant dictionary of Christian symbols that he put together for the use of architects and artists. Pugin would not have thought about symbols in the same way as the modernist. It is not their sort of fanatical “purifying” of structure and building, stripping away to almost nothingness. He was a more additive designer. 


His own ornament and decorative work is beautiful. The craftsmanship he was able to foster in these Gothic details probably had not been done in hundreds of years. 


He revived a lot of craft practices in a Victorian way. He was not an arts and crafts purist who thought that stained glass should be made in the medieval way or that metal work should be hammered out by hand. 

He believed in using steam power and power tools, and in setting up workshops where people could produce this material as quickly as possible with the greatest ease. If he could use a steam-powered hoist to lift stones, he would much prefer that to pushing a block up a ramp. 

He made a point of reviving these crafts with his friends like John Hardman, who had a metal working shop. Pugin had a huge stained-glass shop, but it was medieval effect with Victorian technology. 


We have a lot to thank Pugin for—except for the fact that he hated the classical and so much of architecture, art, and sculpture. 


Pugin, in his taste in fine art, sculpture, and painting, was very much a product of the Regency. He liked neoclassical sculpture. He had no problems with that. He thought that any portrayal of the human figure in the modern world should be anatomically correct. He was not aiming to revive the sort of stylizations of medieval art. 


He seems indebted to the Renaissance, even if he would not admit it. Is that because the Renaissance was more scientific, or something else?


It was partly science, partly a way of embracing the modern world. It was also partly that Pugin was not really thinking about it. His real interest was architectural, because he felt that architecture affected society more directly than a sculpture or a painting would. In painting, he was interested in the pre-Raphaelites. 

By the end of his career, he certainly realized that the Middle Ages of his imagination were purely imaginary. He knew that it was not a golden age. He said that in his letters. But he felt that it was a starting point, a way to look at what a Christian society could be and take that as a model for figuring out how a Christian society could look in the modern world.


Do you see a Gothic revival today, a Pugin revival, in terms of architecture?


There is some new Gothic. Some architects are building it. Some of it is better than others. Did Gothic ever die? Probably not. There has been a continuous Gothic tradition through the twentieth century, going all the way back. 

The best new Gothic is being built in universities. For instance, the new Yale residential colleges are fantastic. There have been some good new buildings at Vanderbilt recently.


The Gothic seems, in America, to be associated with churches, and there is a limited market for that. There is also a market for collegiate Gothic on campuses. But not a whole lot else. Why is that? 


The ideas of collegiate Gothic comes out of Pugin’s ideas, especially the idea that an environment can shape your behaviors and beliefs. Pugin felt that environments of higher education should be Gothic, should have cloisters for contemplation, should have communal dining, and should be beautiful to inspire good taste. 

That idea caught on, for various reasons, with colleges that were attempting to shape the character of their students—to create a world apart for contemplation and study. Colleges have stuck with that today because it fits with the character of their existing campuses. They have a brand. It is what students want. 

I was at Yale when the residential colleges opened. I remember watching two students go into the residential colleges for the first time and saying, “Finally Yale built something for us.” 

This idea that immersing people in aesthetic experience will change them for the better is something very strongly held in the early twentieth century. 


We appreciate that the Gothic revival at Princeton, Yale, and other places in collegiate Gothic was somewhat like Pugin. They associated the architectural style with something good, with the Middle Ages.


To another extent, it is an assertion of a belief in liberal arts education and an assertion of the idea of educating the whole person for democratic society, in opposition to, for instance, the German university system. 

American universities wanted to assert that the liberal arts were important and that everyone should have some education in literature, sciences, and whatever else you needed to be a well-rounded, informed, active participant. In modern society, that works well with the Gothic. 

The idea was that if you create an English-looking university, you are asserting your affiliation with the idea of training the student’s character. Being in the beautiful environment of the collegiate Gothic campus asserts that beauty matters.