Saturday, May 25, 2013

Building of the Week: Royal Albert Hall, 1871

Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, was so impressed with the Great Exhibition of 1851 that he declared a need for a permanent facility to be built in the area that would serve as a place of enlightenment for the British people. Progress on Prince Albert’s idea for a palace to the Arts and Sciences was slow, and Albert’s attention was diverted by a series of family issues which required his personal care in addition to his usual duties. In 1861, Prince Albert died. Though he had declared that he wanted no monuments built in his honor, Her Majesty the Queen was so bereft by the loss of her husband that she insisted that his memory survive in the form of lasting public structures.

The first of these was what had been originally dubbed, “The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences.” Using some of the proceeds from the Great Exhibition, and additional funds raised by the crown, work began on Albert’s dream of a complex dedicated to the Arts and Sciences in 1867. Just before the foundation stone was laid, the Queen declared that the structure should be named in honor of her late husband and called the building, “Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences.” A memorial to the Prince was constructed in front of the site. While it is now separated from the hall by traffic, the Albert Memorial was meant to the artistic representation of the national memorial to the Prince with the Hall itself being the practical memorial.

Exterior of Royal Albert Hall, 1871
The building was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Y.D. Scott, two civil engineers, who sought to create a structure reminiscent of the great Classical amphitheaters. They also had a petty motive of wanting to outdo the recently finished Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. Designed as an ovoid building of red brick, the structure was to be surmounted by a huge dome of glass and wrought iron.

Interior, 1871
The dome was constructed off-site and tested. Before its installation, it was dismantled and delivered to London via horse and cart. When the dome was installed, no one was allowed inside the building when the workmen removed the temporary support structures for fear that the massive puzzle of iron and glass would fall from its place. Their instincts were correct. The dome did fall, but only five-eighths of an inch before wedging itself in place. It has remained in place since 1870.

Illustration showing Royal Albert Hall in 1903
Inset shows the Albert Memorial
 The façade of the dome was decorated with a bas relief mosaic frieze of sixteen scenes of “The Triumphs of the Arts and Sciences.” Counterclockwise from the North side of the dome, these are: (1) Various Countries of the World bringing in their Offerings to the Exhibition of 1851; (2) Music; (3) Sculpture; (4) Painting; (5) Princes, Art Patrons and Artists; (6) Workers in Stone; (7) Workers in Wood and Brick; (8) Architecture; (9) The Infancy of the Arts and Sciences; (10) Agriculture; (11) Horticulture and Land Surveying; (12) Astronomy and Navigation; (13) A Group of Philosophers, Sages and Students; (14) Engineering; (15) The Mechanical Powers; and (16) Pottery and Glassmaking.

Above the frieze, a band of terracotta letters spans the dome and spells out the inscription: "This hall was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort. The site was purchased with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of the year MDCCCLI. The first stone of the Hall was laid by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the twentieth day of May MDCCCLXVII and it was opened by Her Majesty the Twenty Ninth of March in the year MDCCCLXXI. Thine O Lord is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine. The wise and their works are in the hand of God. Glory be to God on high and on earth peace." That’s quite a lot to write on a building. I knew that the molding above the frieze said something, but it’s a little hard to make out from a distance. The next time I’m there, I’ll have to run around the perimeter of the building and try to read it.

Royal Albert Hall opened in 1871. Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII and the least favorite of Victoria’s children) gave a rousing opening speech whereupon Queen Victoria became so overcome with emotion that she could not speak. Edward, in a rare moment of alertness, noticed his mother’s distress and declared for her, “The Queen declares this Hall is now open.”

The structure was not without its problems. As evidenced from the inaugural concert in 1871, the auditorium had terrible acoustics and a displeasing echo effect that was somewhat corrected in 1969 by the addition of hanging acoustic disks (known as “The Mushrooms”). For a century, a common joke among performers, due to the echo, was that Royal Albert Hall was the only place in the world that a British composer would hear his work performed twice.

Despite its bad acoustics, the opulent hall has hosted hundreds of thousands events and remains one of the main focal points of British arts. The Web site of The Royal Albert Hall has a very nifty interactive timeline which is definitely worth visiting.

1 comment:

Shawn said...

One of my favorite buildings...bad acoustics aside, I think it is a stunning and fitting tribute to Prince Albert. Cat you take a video of you running around the building? Hee hee!! :)