Ephemeral architecture


The Royal Arch, Dundee, photographed by Edwin Smith.

It’s an odd thing to discover that a structure you’ve known about for years has been demolished for almost as long as you’ve been alive. It took a review of Britain’s Lost Cities by Gavin Stamp to inform me that the curious Royal Arch in Dundee, Scotland, built between 1849 and 1853, was no more. I only knew it from this photograph in an old Thames & Hudson book, Scotland (1955) by Edwin Smith and GS Fraser.


Even though the arch had an official function—providing a ceremonial gateway for Queen Victoria—in its free-standing singularity and historical confection it’s not very far removed from the numerous follies that still litter the British countryside. Being a long-time fan of the pointless architectural confection, I like to know that these things are still around even if they’re not so good to look at; they make the world a more interesting place.


The architect of this pastiche, which looks like a chunk of Norman cathedral dumped on the dockside, was one John Thomas Rochead whose oddly-shaped and frequently spectacular Wallace Monument still stands. I think it’s the incongruity I like about the arch, its setting and style are completely at odds and it has the fake ruin aspect of many follies, looking like a fragment of something larger. Monuments are often a sub-class of folly and Scotland has another fine example with the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.


Rochead’s arch was demolished in 1964 to make way for the Tay Road Bridge, another victim of the Sixties’ purge of Victorian eccentricity. I don’t always disagree with those purges, the Victorians had no qualms about demolishing older buildings and some of the structures whose demolition Gavin Stamp complains about were pretty awful. Euston Station in London is a soulless glass barn but I can’t see how its exterior would be improved if the heavy and dull Euston Arch had been allowed to remain as its gateway. What we’re seeing today is a reaction to that reaction, with the concrete buildings that were raised on the rubble of their Victorian forebears suffering their own waves of demolition. What goes around, comes around, and even the most apparently permanent structure can be swept away when attitudes change.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Lenin Rising
Dead Monuments
The Triangular Lodge
Pyramid mausoleum