Architecture in News From Nowhere

“An expression of culture” [1] is what defines architecture. Recognized as the “first major arts in the arts’ classification, architecture is part of the 9 major arts as well as the fine arts” [2]. The history of architecture is more or less interesting because of its complexity and the vision of humanity that has been created and realized around it over the millennia. Architecture has attracted the greed of many writers and scholars who wanted to offer their own vision of art. Architecture has led to the creation of many movements claiming their artistic interests and personal beliefs about art. William Morris, a major British writer of the 19th century in England, played a key role in the emergence of the British socialist current. Famous for his utopian novel News From Nowhere (1890), he seems to want to convey a revolutionary vision of architecture mixing his artistic talents and his personal political convictions while wanting to rehabilitate and popularize Marxist thought. Prior to his career as an author, William Morris was an “architect himself and became one of the British Arts and Crafts movement’s pioneers” [3], focusing primarily on the decorative arts, painting and sculpture of the late Victorian era. In this essay, I will seek to question the relevance of having a more beautiful world in the utopia News From Nowhere (1890) by William Morris. I will first examine the connection between nature and William Morris’ vision of architecture. Then, I shall concentrate on the relevance of certain architectural details such as the medieval art’s qualities that shape William Morris’ vision. Finally, I will discuss discuss the impossibility of such a society to exist and the return to reality at the end of the reading of this novel.

“Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization” [4] were some of the great words spoken by William Morris about his artistic conception of the world. Indeed, William Morris was a great admirer of nature. He loved nature for its purity and beauty because it gives off a natural beauty that man cannot create. In News From Nowhere, he seems to denounce a world where nature is often spoiled by the presence of human creation. He demonstrates it perfectly in the first two chapters that focus on a particular symbol to express the awkwardness of humans towards the beauty of nature. This symbol is a bridge overlooking the Thames not far where the narrator lives. The narrator, William Guest, contemplates the beauty of nature but is disturbed by an “ugly suspension bridge (Chapter 1).” In this case, the beauty of nature is somehow blemished by architecture. Architecture does not only have positive effects on nature, it all depends on how the architectural organization is set up. William Morris gives a dark and dismal image of a Victorian England that seems to lack vitality and creativity. Indeed, when returning home from a socialist meeting, William Guest falls asleep. When he wakes up, he finds himself in the 21st century and discovers a whole new society. What strikes him is that humans pay much more attention to nature. There is more respect. This new society is perfectly adapted to his vision of architecture. “London was so grimy and miserable” (Chapter 22) but has now transformed : the ugly bridge he had seen the day before became simply extraordinary : “a wonder of a bridge” (Chapter 2). He is surprised because all the buildings he did not like have been replaced and are now in harmony with beauty. William Morris plays with anarchist images in opposition to architecture. In this new society, it is interesting to note that in Chapter 5, Houses of Parliament were replaced by a market and a storage place for manure. One gets a kind of ironic criticism here where William Morris attacks the 19th century British government which seems to be making no aesthetic effort for its country. News From Nowhere can be interpreted as an escape from an England conditioned in an art and a society too dark, lifeless, without envy with a government without creativity in the image of its own inhabitants. William Morris immerses the reader in his world surrounded by beauty and nature.

William Morris often based in his life on a golden rule that could fit everything: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” In News From Nowhere, William Morris makes constant fixations on the architecture of houses in England. Comparing the two eras, the narrator realizes that people now have more beautiful houses, that their lifestyle is ideal, that they are well dressed and their houses are well decorated. Indeed, decorations or rather what he calls “ornaments” is for him fascinating. Every place he visits has ornaments that he admires. Chapter 7 is particularly interesting because it shows us his attraction to ornate houses: “We were in a region of elegantly built much ornamented houses”. Moreover, what is interesting to see is that one often has this omnipresence of nature that accompanies ornate houses: “Each house stood in a carefully cultivated garden, and running over with flowers”. In the novel, one can find entire descriptions which extend over pages and pages about ornate houses. William Morris’ heart also leans towards an architecture that has a desire to improve and surprise through its beauty and its connection with nature. Medieval art is at the heart of the novel News From Nowhere. Indeed, when the narrator visits London with Dick Hammond, he compares this futuristic city with the city of his time. He is fascinated by medieval architecture that is full of creativity and styles mixing the best qualities of the world according to him such as those of Gothic, Byzantine and Saracenic. He notices that all the buildings have changed but have become more beautiful than before. In chapter 30, he is seduced by a Gothic cathedral that he describes as “pleasant to look at.” William Morris shows that he is fascinated by anything that is also Gothic ornaments like the drawings, the sculptures, the different medieval paintings. By writing News From Nowhere, he recalls how much medieval art has been influential in the world and wants to revive it because there is nothing more beautiful than medieval creations. Furthermore, in chapter 4, he seems to reach his glory’s height by discovering Hammersmith’s new landscape with small houses pretty to see. He states that this “whole mass of architecture was not only exquisitely beautiful in itself, but it bore upon the expression of such generosity and abundance of life that he was exhilarated to a pitch that he had never yet reached.” Architecture, when it is very pleasant to see, seems to bring him a great satisfaction of joy. News From Nowhere shows us that architecture is not only a process of construction but also a pure pleasure of contemplation.

“Long walks on the beach are supposed holy grail of a romantic evening. The beach becomes a kind of utopia – the place where all our dreams come true” wrote Professor Roxana Gay of Purdue University. In News From Nowhere, the reader is immersed in William Morris’ dream. His novel is a utopia, that is to say a world totally invented, imaginary, well apart from the facts that happen in the present. The problem is that William Morris is constantly imagining, dreaming the society he wants. However, only through writing can he contribute to this society. His ideas about architecture are clear: he wants to reform Victorian England. Nevertheless, this Victorian period was forged from the industrial revolution’s effects that William Morris strives to despise. The industrial revolution forged the country’s landscape with houses that are not pleasant to see and a nature that is totally degraded by the architectural means in place. In chapter 4, “the wall of the great hall of a splendid and exuberant style of architecture” does not exist. It is not real. It belongs to the 21st century that William Morris imagines and not what could really happen. French journalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand wrote “There is something very utopian about what I do. But Utopia is nothing more than a truth that the world is not yet ready to hear.” Indeed, in News From Nowhere, William Morris transports us into his socialist ideologies through which art and architecture are at the center of his thoughts. His novel can be read as a criticism of capitalism as well as Victorian society that totally ruined the hopes of new architects. There is somehow nothing new, no surge of hope in this architecture of the 19th century. It is certainly hard to hear or to admit and that is what William Morris may want to denounce in this novel. Urbanism took control over nature. However, this utopian thought will stop, whether heard or not, it will stop at the end of this novel and the “stones of some bridges showing no marks of the grimy sootiness which he was used to see on every London building and that fascinated him” (Chapter 2) will disappear giving way to a gloomy reality.

To put it in a nutshell, News From Nowhere offers a utopian vision of architecture but brings a touch of renewal in the desire to have a more beautiful world in terms of architecture. The different jugglings between the two eras invite us to remember the relevance of nature in a world that is often overthrown by human urbanism. William Morris is attached to values that seem to belong to the past in a Victorian England forged by an industrial revolution. In wanting to revive the medieval art’s qualities, he seems to want to bring a little renewal in this society unfortunately become dismal and gloomy. Mixing science fiction and eco-poetry, he alleviates the suffering of architects in search of renewal. His ideas greatly contributed to the development of Art Nouveau [5].

Bibliography

[1] https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture [09:45 18/02/2018]

[2] https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaux-arts_(disciplines) [09:45 18/02/2018]

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Morris [09:45 18/02/2018]

[4] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/8127.William_Morris [12:45 18/02/2018]

[5] https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_nouveau [20:45 18/02/2018]