Royal Gold Medallist George Godwin epitomises the spirit of inquiry recognised in the annual RIBA President’s Award for Research. His example should inspire entrants for this year’s award
‘…architecture is a science as well as an art… the architect of the future must not be simply the apostle of the past, but the good genius of to-day. I am not prepared to say, ‘Let the dead past bury its dead,’ by any means. The past is too valuable to us.’
George Godwin, upon receiving the Royal Gold Medal in 1881
Sink estates, the need for social housing and a revived interest in the material qualities and cultural associations of concrete: you’d be forgiven for thinking you were about to read yet another paean to brutalism. In fact in the mid-19th century, these interests combined in the extraordinary career of George Godwin, an early member of what was still then ‘just’ the Institute of British Architects, and who, as editor of The Builder for over 30 years, often reported on the dire living conditions in London’s slums.
In June 1835, the Council of the Institute of British Architects resolved to offer an honorary premium for an essay ‘On the nature and character of Concrete and its application hitherto to construction in England’. Advertisements were taken out to publicise the competition and premium, and Thomas Leverton Donaldson, the ‘founding father of the Institute and of the profession’, proposed that a list of questions and desiderata be drawn up ‘in every Branch of Science connected with Architecture… and distributed for the purpose of eliciting from all quarters’. The setting of essay questions or problems with premiums for winners was common practice in the intellectual culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, and indeed remained a core part of the RIBA’s prizes, medals and studentships programme (what the RIBA now calls ‘Awards’ and ‘Medals’) until the middle of the last century.
In December 1835, the Council minutes record that the Secretary had received ‘one essay on concrete agreeable to the advertisements published’. The paper was referred to senior members of Council to decide whether and what premium the essay deserved. The winning work was by George Godwin Junior (1815 - 1888), who happened also to be nominated for membership of the Institute at the same meeting.
In April of 1836, Leverton Donaldson was asked to submit a design and cost estimates for a new ‘Honorary Medal’ of the Institute, representing on the reverse the Temple of Theseus and on the obverse a wreath encircling the words ‘Institute of British Architects’. Donaldson was an amateur numismatist – he described himself as ‘medal-bitten’ – and would later write an illustrated book about antique architectural medals, Architectura Numismatica, published in 1859.[i] He had himself been a silver medallist of the Royal Academy in 1816, an annual award for a measured drawing of a building in the vicinity of London.
This first medal, produced by Benjamin Wyon, scion of the eminent Wyon dynasty of medallists, was brought to a Council meeting and approved in July 1836. Copies were produced and it was duly awarded to Godwin.[ii] Godwin would later remark that ‘It was my fortune to receive in student days… the very first medal given by the Institute, for an Essay which was received with more favour than I could have ventured to hope for.’
Godwin’s essay was a romp through methods of ‘concretion’ and cement, citing examples from Vitruvius to Palladio to Wren in the tradition of classical architecture. But he also noted evidence from Mexico, where one Mr Bullock had discovered that the foundations of ancient monuments ‘were raised upon artificial foundations, constructed sometimes wholly of pebbles or broken stones, and at others of broken stones and clay firmly compacted’. Evidence of useful precedents for concrete construction, as it was understood in the 19th century, was also found in Ancient Egypt and in Anglo-Saxon construction.
But Godwin was no mere antiquary: the bulk of his article is devoted to observation and experiments in the mixture and laying of concrete foundations. He cites contemporary practice in France and Italy – Béton, 40 years before the birth of Perret, and Smalto respectively – and Soane’s admixture of Kentish rubble and broken granite used in the foundations of many of his public works. He names sources for putty and sand in and around London, and includes tables of evidence with data and figures beyond, I’m afraid, the technical understanding of the present writer.
The essay was primarily concerned with the importance of concrete foundations: ‘The concrete substratum having been lately so generally employed in construction, all persons know something of its preparation and its properties… few, if any, know everything.’ Godwin was gathering together the latest technology and thinking so that it might ‘afford a foundation’, unable to resist the pun, ‘upon which, hereafter, other and more able hands may erect a valuable superstructure’.
The science and technology might be obsolete for contemporary design and construction with concrete (except, perhaps, for a conservation project), but the principles of establishing an ‘evidence base’, sharing research and innovation for fellow practitioners, are ones to which the profession aspires today with renewed energy. Godwin’s approach to his subject matter – a readable and holistic summary – might provide some inspiration for ‘research in practice’ even in a contemporary context.
Godwin went on to have an illustrious career in architecture and architectural journalism. He became editor of The Builder in 1844 and held that position until 1883. In 1881 he received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, having also served as a vice-president of the Institute, and during his speech announced that he would be endowing a bursary for travel abroad to ‘study and report on a new point in planning, any novelties in construction, and improvements in sanitary arrangements, which he might find in the town or city which he should elect to visit.’ The Godwin Bursary, fittingly, came with its own medal first issued in 1884. The obverse, bearing a portrait of Godwin in profile, was executed by George Gammon Adams at the benefactor’s preference. The reverse was the same as the Royal Gold Medal. A copy is held in the RIBA’s archive. The Bursary was awarded until the 1960s.
Godwin’s interests were wide-ranging but often underpinned by concern for the housing and living conditions of the poor. At his Royal Gold Medal presentation ceremony, the president remarked:
‘Among the works for which Mr Godwin is specially known are those which he has from time to time published on the subject of the crying evils of bad drainage, bad ventilation and bad building, especially as these affect the condition and happiness of the labouring classes.’
The Builder frequently included reports of Godwin’s travels to some of worst slums and most deprived areas of London; an anthology of these was published as Another Blow for Life in 1864. For this, Godwin’s name ranks with others of the great Victorian social and healthcare reformers, such as Edwin Chadwick and John Snow. Godwin was also heavily involved in the establishment of the Art Union of London, an organisation of which he was honorary secretary for many years, and was an early and longstanding advocate of a national theatre.
Godwin’s essay and subsequent career chimes with major professional and Institute concerns of today. The profession still champions quality housing and planning for all communities. It still values architectural research – in this case, understanding materials and their use – and it still draws on the expertise of science and other connected professions and industries. It still looks to the future of technology and professionalism, as Godwin did, while valuing heritage and history. And the RIBA still seeks to reward the best of this work by its members and others concerned with the built environment. These principles are reflected in our President’s Awards for Research programme – new criteria and submission guidelines recapture this spirit of celebrating research carried out by practitioners and to improve practice.
Neal Shasore is RIBA practice projects co-ordinator
[i] Donaldson, it should be noted, also designed the Institute’s heraldic badge, the core of which – two lions rampant guardant supporting a chevron column – remains in use as part of our corporate logo. The motif of the column is taken from the nave of Durham Cathedral, not, as is now commonly misattributed along with the lions themselves, from the Lion Gate at Mycenae. The reference to the Mycenaean lions emerged at some point around 1909 for a small institute badge according to an article on ‘The RIBA: Badge: The Story of Variations on a Theme’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (14 April 1934), p568.
[ii] Godwin’s essay was published in the first issue of the first volume of Transactions of the Royal Institute of British Architects with the title ‘'The Structural Properties of Concrete, and its application to Construction Up to the present Period'.