According to J. M. Crook, architects of the past few centuries have tried to solve the crucial problem of the relations among utility, technology, and beauty in two opposing ways:

Either we build industrial structures in such a way that they fit into received categories of beauty, or else we refashion those categories so that they fit the railway station and the factory. Broadly speaking, the first answer -- making utilitarian structures fit traditional aesthetics -- was tried by the Victorians and the Edwardians. The second -- tailoring our criteria of beauty to suit the imperatives of technology -- was the solution set out by the Modern Movement. Propriety and association were the watchwords of the first method; structural objectivity was the yardstick of the second. [225]

Looking at massive structures like London's St. Pancras Railway Station and attached gothic building, which began its existence as a luxurious hotel, one sees the Victorians trying both modes at the same time. Approaching St. Pancras, one first encounters a characateristically Victorian attempt to use old forms for a new purposes.

Aesthetic Building, the Architect's Domain: Station and Grand Midland Hotel (1868-77)

Utilitarian Building, the Engineer's Domain: The Train Shed

The station itself, particularly the covered train shed, embodied pure engineering while the appended station structure, which often included a hotel, embodied aesthetic opportunities. Not surprisingly, many modernist architects and critics judged the iron and glass train sheds better structures than the accompanying brick buildings. which some architectural historians claim to be the only new building type created in the nineteenth century.

The Clash of Form and Function? Or attempts at a solution?

Where else in Victorian culture, particularly in literature, does this split between utility -- however defined -- and aesthetics appear? Does literature do better with this Victorian "dilemma" than architecture?


Brooks, Chris. The Gothic Revival. London: Phaidon, 1999.

Crook, J. Mordaunt. The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Meeks, Carol L. V. The Victorian Railroad Station: An Architectural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1956.

Created 18 July 2001

Last modified 17 August 2016