Georgian architecture is one of the most defining parts of Ireland’s heritage, especially in the urban context. Whole parts of the main Irish cities, and some lesser towns too, were designed and constructed to the aesthetic sensibilities of the “Georgians.” When people today talk about "Georgian Dublin," they are usually referring to a smallish area of the southern half of the city, around Merrion Square, Saint Stephen's Green, and Fitzwilliam Square. Because these areas (plus Mountjoy Square on the Northside) are really defined by an architectural style generally identified with the Georgian period in Irish (and British) history.
What's in a Name?
Georgian architecture is not a single, defined style. The appellation is the all-encompassing, and often maybe too general, name applied to the set of architectural styles that were en vogue between roughly 1720 and 1830. The name is directly linked to the Hanoverians then on the British throne—George I, George II, George III, and George IV. These men reigned Britain and Ireland in continuous succession, starting in August 1714, and ending in June 1830.
Rather than being one uniform style, Georgian style was more varied. The Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entry on Georgian style notes that "the various styles in the architecture, interior design, and decorative arts of Britain [underwent] such diversification and oscillation in artistic style during this period that it is perhaps more accurate to speak of Georgian styles."
How the Style Developed
The Georgian style was the successor, but not necessarily the natural child of the "English Baroque", made so famous by architects like Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. There was a period of transition, when buildings still retained some Baroque elements, but the Scotsman Colen Campbell hit the scene, advocating a new architecture. And publicizing this in his seminal "Vitruvius Britannicus, or the British Architect".
Yet no unified new style was made codex in this—instead, a variety of styles came to the fore. Some of them decidedly old-fashioned, but adapted.
Mainstream, and maybe most iconic of the initial period of Georgian style, was Palladian architecture. Named after, and inspired by, the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508 to 1580). With a strong emphasis on symmetry, and often based on classical temple architecture.
Around 1765, Neoclassical became the way to go—a style again developed from classical architecture, incorporating Vitruvian principles, and still citing Andrea Palladio as the role model of architects. It was, however, much more austere than the European Rococo, with far less ornamentation.
The third main phase in Georgian style was the Regency style, again a development from Neoclassical, with a playful addition of some elegance. Making the Regency buildings just a little less severe than their predecessors. Regency preferred houses to be built as terraces or crescents, whenever possible, and elegant ironwork for balconies, as well as bow windows, were all the rage.
One might also mention Greek Revival here—a style closely related to Neoclassical, but with the added contemporary fad of Hellenism. One of the most important buildings in this style would be Dublin's General Post Office.
Georgian architecture relied on mathematical ratios—for instance, the height of a window was nearly always in a fixed relation to its width, the shape of rooms was a based on cubes, uniformity was highly desirable. Down to the basics, as ashlar stonework, uniformly cut with military precision, was looked upon as the pinnacle of design. It all came down to creating symmetry and adhering to classical rules.
In town planning, as during the boom times in 18th century Dublin, a regularity of house fronts along a street, or around a square, was more important than the expression of individuality by the respective home owners. In fact, the often photographed, colorful "Doors of Dublin" would have been uniformly black in Georgian times. As to building materials, the humble brick, or cut stone, was the basis. With red or tan bricks and almost white stonework, dominating—often given an overall lick of white paint.
How to Spot Georgian Architecture
The main characteristics of Georgian architecture are hard to pin down due to the variety of styles within the style. However, some hallmarks include:
- Most houses resemble a simple box, usually two rooms deep, with strictly symmetrical arrangements of all details;
- A paneled front door (or pairs of doors in larger developments) would be centered, topped with a set of rectangular windows, and capped with a more or less elaborate crown, usually supported by decorative pilasters—the famous Doors of Dublin are in this style;
- A cornice, most often embellished with decorative mouldings or covings;
- Windows would be multi-paned, all windows would be arranged symmetrically;
- Smaller paned sash windows (plus dormer windows) would be used for the upper floors, where the servants' quarters were.
Only Found in Dublin?
Examples of the style, with a varying degree of architectural merit and preservation, can be found all over Ireland. Generally speaking, the larger the town, the better the chance to find Georgian buildings. The small town of Birr in County Offaly, for instance, is renowned for its Georgian heritage.
But beware, occasionally these will not be true Georgian buildings, but modern buildings recreating the Georgian style. Because, in its austerity, in its symmetry, it is still quite pleasing to the eye. And thus has become fairly timeless. Which could be said to be the mark of real success.