Augustus Pugin is one of those figures who arguably towers over British architecture. Whether it was his role in the design of the Houses of Parliament or his personal masterpiece, St Giles Catholic Church in Staffordshire, Pugin stands as a Victorian great who had an obsessive belief in the good that architecture could do.
The days of an almost religious devotion to design can seem like the stuff of a distant past. Architecture today, we’re told, is all about building to a price and anything which smacks of embellishment or indulgence is unlikely to win the next tender.
Or is it? Architect David Franklin argues that quality, attention to detail and cost are not mutually exclusive. And he’s in a strong position to make the case: not only is he a partner in the expanding Nottingham practice Franklin Ellis Architects, he’s also the Great Great Great Grandson of Pugin himself.
Despite his landmark contribution to the world around us, Pugin was a figure who fell out of fashion, dying young and then being endlessly criticised by another Victorian cultural giant, John Ruskin, for years after his death. Some would argue that their differing reputations simply reflected the fact that Ruskin lived longer and talked more.
Either way, Pugin didn’t loom large in David Franklin’s formative years and his decision to go into architecture wasn’t driven by a desire to follow in his famous forebear’s footsteps. But the more he read about Pugin while at university, the more he began to see the eternal relevance of some of Pugin’s defining principles.
He explains: “Pugin was following on from Georgian design, which was all about the the face you presented to the public, which was sometimes elegant, sometimes almost blingy. But that focus on presenting the finest face sometimes meant sacrifices had to be made in the interior.
“What Pugin said was that internal arrangement was just as important and that outside had to reflect inside in that decoration followed from an essential function – you couldn’t add it for its own sake. He wasn’t just saying form should follow function, he was suggesting decoration had to be applied to something of use.”
Pugin’s own body of work demonstrates that he wasn’t about indulgent theory; eye-catching as it remains, his was design and attention to detail with a purpose. And it’s that principle that David Franklin believes is just as relevant today.
“The more I read about his life the more dedicated he was to really caring what he did,” says David. “This is what he really means to me – buildings which contribute to the environment around them mean more and give more. They will give back longer and more deeply when greater care is taken with the design.”
David Franklin says it’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean buildings must make flamboyant statements: “Budgets do not stop you delivering purposeful detail and paying attention to that is absolutely critical. Using high quality materials in a simple way is, if you like, a Franklin Ellis trademark. That kind of considered detail is the best way to show that you care about what you produce.
“We go a long way to demonstrate to clients that you can still achieve quality within a reasonable budget if you follow some of Pugin’s principles – paying attention to the detail and using appropriate materials.”
On that basis, says David, the work his great great great grandfather was responsible for should be seen as an inspiration rather than a historical curiosity. Indeed, some of that inspiration can be found in the way in which Franklin Ellis brought an old pumping station in Nottingham back to life as its own offices.
“This was built in the Gothic style Pugin was famous for, but sadly in the same year as his death, in 1852,” says David. “It was a neglected building, but you could see the purpose underneath it. We refurbished and extended it very much in keeping with the principles of being appropriate and developing it in a way which was appropriate. We wanted to retain its character and we adopted a set of simple principles. Getting the detail right was, of course, critical.”
He concludes: “There is a lot of publicity now about Pugin. He was seen as a fanatic, but his love, care and desire to use buildings to give a narrative to life is more relevant now than it has ever been.”