On the Material and Immaterial Architecture of Organised Positivism in Britain

Dr Matthew Wilsons paper on British Positivist Halls has been published in Architectural Histories

Wilson, M 2015 On the Material and Immaterial Architecture of Organised Positivism in Britain. Architectural Histories, 3(1): 15, pp. 1–21, DOI: http://


Positivism captured the Victorian imagination. Curiously, however, no work has focused on the architectural history and theory of Positivist halls in Britain. Scholars present these spaces of organised Positivism as being the same in thought and action throughout their existence, from the 1850s to the 1940s. Yet the British Positivists’ inherently different views of the work of their leader, the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), caused such friction between them that a great schism in the movement occurred in 1878. By the 1890s two separate British Positivist groups were using different space and syntax types for manifesting a common goal: social reorganisation. The raison d’être of these institutions was to realize Comte’s utopian programme, called the Occidental Republic. In the rise of the first organised Positivist group in Britain, Richard Congreve’s Chapel Street Hall championed the religious ritualism and cultural festivals of Comte’s utopia; the terminus for this theory and practice was a temple typology, as seen in the case of Sydney Style’s Liverpool Church of Humanity. Following the Chapel Street Hall schism of 1878, Newton Hall was in operation by 1881 and under the direction of Frederic Harrison. Harrison’s group coveted intellectual and humanitarian activities over rigid ritualism; this tradition culminated in a synthetic, multi-function hall typology, as seen in the case of Patrick Geddes’ Outlook Tower. Thus though seeking the same end – to transform society for the better – the two Positivist groups went about their work in inherently different ways.