The Act of Publicity, n.

There are also evils to be shunned jobbing, secresy, and precipitancy. The two latter almost include the first; for if due deliberation be had, and publicity be given, there is little chance of a job going undetected.

The Spectator, 25 October 1834

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In the wake of the fire that had completely destroyed the Houses of Parliament in 1834, the weekly Spectator called for ‘a competition, open to all, foreign as well as native artists’. Architectural competitions, in spite of becoming ever more frequent, were however controversial. The Spectator warned of the ‘evils to be shunned’, such as ‘jobbing’ and ‘secresy’ which could only be prevented through ‘due deliberation’ as well as ‘publicity’ – a term that deserves closer scrutiny. As the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, it first meant ‘the quality of being public; the condition or fact of being open to public observation or knowledge’. This sense became obsolete at some point in the later nineteenth century, when the current meaning of ‘Public notice or attention given to someone or something’ became more common. In the early 1800s thus, ‘publicity’ was transitioning from referring to the quality of being public to the ‘action or process of making someone or something publicly known’.

It is no surprise that this occurred at precisely the time when most British media outlets that were in any way concerned with matters of national interest discussed the proceedings surrounding the design of the new parliament building. From the Architectural Magazine, Britain’s first exclusively architectural periodical to The Times, The Morning Chronicle and The Spectator, calls for publicity in all its forms abounded. Both via printed matter – newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and catalogues – as well as through exhibitions (to be documented and debated in the former), authors were concerned with the act of ‘making known’. This act required, however, two actors: not only the one to ‘make public’, the author or curator, but also another one to ‘give attention’, which was the public. In order to communicate, both had to speak the same language, as it were; they had to share a similar knowledge base. The readers of newspaper and visitors of exhibitions had to be educated and informed – hence the flurry of textbook publications in the period. Just a year after its initial warning against jobbing in the set up of the parliament competition, The Spectator thus lauded the publication of Boid’s History of Architecture (1835) as ‘peculiarly well-timed’, since the new Houses of Parliament formed ‘an event in the annals of our architecture that may be expected to excite public attention in no ordinary degree’(7 November 1835). Only if informed about architecture’s past, the public could pay appropriate attention to its present state and thus take its share in the act of architectural publicity.

 

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