Architecture, power and ritual in Scottish town halls, 1833-1973

  • Susan O'Connor

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Town halls are the key expression of civic consciousness in the urban environment. They were constructed at a period of change for local government, when there was an urgent need for transition to an altered method of control. They enable a degree of civic access and ritual, and encapsulate important messages of local culture and heritage, in an effort to appropriate them to boost the legitimacy of the political process. The change expressed by their building can be read as a microcosm of the town; and from the town, the city and country: the majority of concerns and triumphs expressed at local level echoed those being voiced nationally, tracking flux in the narrative of social and political history. This research shows that the town hall provides the resolution of local authority change: it is a static statement of a great political transformation, easing the passage of a local authority’s development from a point of weakness and uncertainty to a position of strength. For this transition to be managed effectively, the ability of the town hall to express power is vital. This power is expressed through a broad range of source materials, including local and national sources of culture and history, and latterly, international inspiration as well. The function of the town hall’s architecture as a civic space designed for social ritual changed dramatically during the period studied, from making public involvement the design’s key driver in nineteenth century designs, to their relegation to external gathering spaces in the twentieth century. The social history of a locality was a frequent tool in the legitimisation of town halls – an effect heightened by the numerous strategies employed by their municipal designers to inculcate the suggestion of power within their construction. These could include the inclusion of redundant but impressive features, widespread demolition or the use of a culturally-significant location. This thesis describes how the narratives of power, ritual and civic access, drawn out during the construction of town halls, mirror those of contemporary society. It addresses the question of the role of town halls for urban society, and how they serve as monuments to distinct periods in the development of urban civilisation.
Date of Award27 Jun 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorRobert Proctor (Supervisor)


  • Architectural history
  • Town Halls
  • Scotland
  • Civic Centre
  • architecture of government
  • council buildings

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