Victorian buildings

Crystal Palace

Novelty characterised the Victorian period. This is the era best known for inventions, for remarkable technological advances and engineering marvels. Throughout, the speed of change was phenomenal, a movement best encapsulated by the arrival of the steam train. Suddenly it was possible to travel great distances at speeds hitherto unimaginable. Within decades of the first train, a recognisable railway network sprang up. An iron spider’s web, it connected up the country, dissolving distances. People and goods could now move easily around, and with them ideas. As travel was relatively cheap, most could afford to experience the new railways and their destinations. The population’s sense of place was transformed. No longer tied to a locality, they could move as they wished, changing jobs, towns, religious denomination and status.

This freedom, unsurprisingly, had tremendous impact on buildings. Patrons and architects travelled extensively, becoming inspired by the many forms of regional, national and international architecture. Travelling through time and space, their ideas about buildings were revolutionised. Many became experts on historic architecture, and were keen to display their knowledge. Like a book of quotations, they use parts of old buildings in the new, to mix together windows, doors and carvings, blending styles and sources.

Of course, most associate the Victorians with the pointed arches of the Gothic Revival. However, this was but one of the architectural styles that inspired them. Classical architecture remained popular, so too Byzantine, Romanesque, Elizabethan, and Italian, even Japanese. As the period was so long and the enthusiasm to build un-exhausting, different styles became popular at distinct times. Thus, Victorian architecture can be best described as eclectic, a mixture of styles. Together, however, this somehow created a distinct architecture, some of the most exciting buildings in this country, recognised now as international landmarks.

Extracts from the exhibition

Railway architecture

Detail of Newcastle Viaduct

Travel across the nation, admiring superb stations, sublime viaducts and engineering marvels of the Victorian railway builders.

Municipal buildings

Manchester Town Hall

Gawp at the soaring towers, ornate facades and great halls of the municipal palaces of the north, the town halls.


Detail of Leeds Corn Exchange

Explore arcades, exchanges and markets – the architecture of the nation of shopkeepers



Detail of plan of Claybury Asylum

Enter a hidden world, the labyrinthine complexes of the Victorian asylums, if you dare.


Detail of Pugin stained glass

Medieval or Victorian? Encounter the curious churches of the Gothic Revival master Pugin.

Leisure and pleasure

Blackpool Tower and illuminations

Escape the factories, warehouses and offices and delve into the delights of Blackpool, queen of the resorts.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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