Actors and Vehicles of Architectural Criticism (6)

Knowledge, History, and Work: Critical Positions at the Royal Institute of British Architects 1889-1924
Matthew J. Wells
Royal College of Art / Victoria & Albert Museum, London

My paper will explore the interrelation between agents and actors during the professional definition of the ‘The Architect’ in early twentieth century England. I will investigate the networks of criticism within the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) through its in-house publications RIBA Proceedings (2nd series 1885 – 1893) and RIBA Journal (3rd series 1894 – present). The establishment of Architects Registration Bill Committee in 1889 and the amalgamation of the Society of Architects into the RIBA in 1924 define the period of investigation. The paper will address a gap in the secondary literature, which has tended to focus only on the statutory registration of the architect in England in relation to the mechanics of practice rather than a part of the contemporary critical dialogue.

My research will draw on other contemporary positions to develop a nuanced understanding of the role and use of criticism in nineteenth-century architectural culture. I will also utilise institutional archival documentation from within the RIBA – such as internal correspondence and council minutes – to provide a background to the journal’s position and intent. Through the exploration of a series of specific case studies the paper will broaden the notion of ‘actors’ into an institutional framework and investigate relationships between architects and critics during a period when the definition of the role of ‘The Architect’ was played out in the public realm. A central line of inquiry will be to discuss the level of influence made by the RIBA on the form and content of the criticism within its journal. I will question the extent that the journal formed a part of the RIBA’s critical position and how that manifested itself within text and images, and public exhibitions held at the RIBA headquarters during the period.


M. J. Wells is an architect and a PhD candidate at the Victoria & Albert Museum and Royal College of Art. Supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award, his research investigates the role architectural models played in both professional practice and the public sphere during the nineteenth century. Following architectural training in Liverpool and London, he worked for Eric Parry Architects. In 2014 he was awarded a Masters degree from the Courtauld Institute of Art for work on orthographic drawings of antique monuments in Rome. Since 2015 he has taught the history & theory of architecture at Kingston School of Art. Recently his research has been published in Architectural History, San Rocco and the Journal of Art Historiography. Other essays, on buildings, books, and exhibitions, have been published in the JSAH, the Burlington Magazine, and Architecture Today. In addition to his PhD, he is working on two collaborative projects. Firstly, working with the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust on the restoration of a nineteenth-century model of Sheerness that will aim to rehabilitate a much-deprived area for the local community. Second, a long-term project with Drawing Matter on the production, conception, and use of survey drawings by architects.


Image caption
Thomas Collcutt, design for the Imperial Institute of the United Kingdom, the Colonies and India, London. Architect, 1 July 1887, p.5.

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