Can Buildings Talk?

Broadcaster: BBC Four
Year: 2014
Genre: Documentary

Review by: Steven Ragdale

This episode of ‘Majesty and Mortar: Britain’s Great Palaces’ is the first in a three part documentary series by the much-loved architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, who has delighted in bringing his love of architectural history to our screens for many years. Armed with an incredible talent for making architectural history appealing and accessible to a wide audience, Cruickshank’s enthusiasm for architecture is a joy to watch and can be seen throughout the episode.

In this first episode, Cruickshank is keen to stress the importance of the underlying theme of the series: the idea that buildings are physical reflections of their owners’ personalities and can be analysed to uncover the reasons behind their construction, what their owners’ were hoping to convey, and how others would view these great structures.

This programme is of great use to those with little or no knowledge in this area and provides a good introduction to the subject of British architectural history. This is largely due to Cruickshank’s friendly presenting style, which he uses to ease people in to the world of architectural history. This is particularly important, as this series focuses on elite buildings, which Cruickshank masterfully brings in to the reach and understanding of his television audience through his ability to convey his message simply and effectively, which makes this programme more accessible for his audience.

Using the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 as a starting point, the Tower of London that was swiftly built by William the Conqueror is described as a defining moment in its own right. Here, Cruickshank demonstrates to the viewer the importance of the visual impact buildings have on people. The significance of building this structure out of stone is lost on the modern day viewer, but through emphasising the context in which this building was constructed, Cruickshank expertly demonstrates to the viewer the incredible impact the Tower of London would have had on English people in the eleventh century – a society which had never before encountered stone buildings of this scale. With striking camera shots of the Tower of London in its wider setting, this visual aid really helps the viewer’s understanding of this key concept, and indicates the importance of contextualising buildings as a way of better understanding them in their own right, and as windows in to the past.


The connection between these royal structures and the people who helped sculpt them is also explored well by Cruickshank, who discusses the different ways in which Royal palaces have been used by their owners, and consequently, the changing roles of the buildings themselves. Through describing the Tower of London as a luxurious living space for William I, to a safe haven for Stephen in the 1140s, to a home for the Royal Mint! This helps to create a clear narrative for the viewer, aiding their understanding of the ever changing needs of different monarchs throughout time.

Cruickshank then reinforces the idea that these buildings change in their meaning throughout time, and can transport us in the present back through time, by continuing this thought through examining Westminster Hall. The attention to detail throughout this episode is staggering, and can be seen in Cruickshank’s explanation of a hammerbeam roof. Using the medieval Westminster Hall as an example, Cruickshank draws the attention of the viewer to the hammerbeam roof, explaining its full significance to the viewer through setting it in its historical context in a concise and effective manner.

Alongside effective camera shots of the hammberbeam roof which highlight specific features as Cruickshank explains their structural and decorative impacts, this combination enables the viewer to fully appreciate this magnificent feat of medieval engineering.

Vault II

Much of the second half of the episode focuses on Henry VIII and his passion for palace building, through which Cruickshank is able to reveal much about Henry’s character and personality, reinforcing the idea of buildings being physical representations of the people and societies that built them. Through exploring the origins and ideas behind Hampton Court Palace, much can be said about the image Henry VIII wanted to project. Cruickshank explains that it was Cardinal Wolsey who originally designed and built Hampton Court Palace as a statement, celebrating and welcoming the principles of the Renaissance and moving away from the more traditional Gothic architecture of the previous centuries. This he does very well, and succeeds in developing the idea that buildings can be used to send messages to those who view them. Cardinal Wolsey understood the power of architecture, which Henry VIII wanted to emulate. Cruickshank, who also understands and values the power architecture can have over people, conveys this in a helpful and effective manner for his television audience.

Wolsey III

The last segment of this episode looks specifically at Stirling Castle, and the influence it had on King James VI and I. Through highlighting the meaning behind the grotesque gargoyles from local myths that can be found on the outer walls of the castle, and contrasting these with the Classical-inspired statues that inhabit the inner courtyard, Cruickshank shows the audience how this left a clear impression on the mindset of James VI and I. This provides a clear representation of how the King viewed the world, looking ahead towards the future and Enlightenment principles, rather than behind to the darkness and ignorance of the past. This also provides a neat and logical end to the first installment, leaving the viewer in little doubt about where the series is heading in its broader context.

Cruikshanks IV

Overall, through focussing on particular Royal buildings such as the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Westminster Hall, this episode establishes the key theme of learning to use buildings to explore the past. The impact different individuals have on these iconic structures, and in turn the influence they have over people, can be clearly seen and understood by the viewer when set in their wider context. Through doing so, the viewer learns to appreciate the true value and importance of these structures. Cruickshank weaves together the stories of these great buildings, the characters who shaped them, and in turn those who were shaped by them, and sets this against the wider themes of their historical contexts. This results in a first-rate documentary programme, throughout which Dan Cruickshank’s passion and enthusiasm for the history of architecture and its important role in modern Britain is a joy to watch, and provides an incredibly informative account for both people with or without any prior knowledge in architectural history.

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