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‘Hawksmoor’s buildings are uncompromising confrontations’

The Royal Academy reflects on the 350th anniversary of the architect’s birth

From his earliest projects in the 1690s, Nicholas Hawksmoor developed a singular approach to form, mass and style in his buildings. Described as ‘violent’, ‘forceful’ and ‘haunting’, Hawksmoor’s buildings are uncompromising confrontations. The work of an accomplished scholar, his achievements at Castle Howard, Easton Neston, Greenwich Hospital and Oxford betray a deep understanding of space and the principles of engineering. In 1715, Nicholas Hawksmoor condemned London as ‘an ugly inconvenient self destroying unwieldy monster’. Between 1711 and 1733 he studded the city with spires and towers, designing six iconic buildings in response to the Act for the Building of Fifty New Churches. He was also responsible for the west towers of Westminster Abbey, begun in 1734.

Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination, which marks the 350th anniversary of the architect’s birth (unless you believe, as some do, that he was actually born in 1666), concentrates on the afterlives of Hawksmoor’s designs. It is not so much a show about Nicholas Hawksmoor, but about what others have created in response to his efforts. Present in Charles Dickens’ fiction, Robert Venturi’s theories and John Soane’s lectures, Hawksmoor’s buildings continue to fascinate and inspire.

Considering that the Royal Academy’s ‘Architecture Space’ is a blink-and-you-miss-it corridor connecting the restaurant to the main entrance hall, the Hawksmoor display packs in a great deal of visual and textual information. Three screens offer pithy and thoughtful interviews with Ptolemy Dean, Iain Sinclair and Philip Pullman, each of whom speaks engagingly about how and why the strange geometry of Hawksmoor’s buildings appeal. An insightful parallel is drawn between Philip Pullman’s imagined Oxford in Northern Lights and Hawksmoor’s ambitions to redesign the university’s spaces three centuries before. Across this expanse of time, both Hawksmoor and Pullman crafted compelling Oxford fictions which played on the hidden glories of collegiate spaces.

It’s a pleasure to catch sight of Hogarth’s Gin Lane or Lasdun’s National Theatre out of the corner of your eye, and the exhibition’s biggest triumph is its blend of reproductions, original artworks, text and film. A colourful Georgian procession outside Westminster Abbey shares wall space with an infamous 1973 image of Christ Church Spitalfields’ scandalously neglected interior. On the opposite wall, Iain Sinclair’s roughly sketched map pulls Hawksmoor’s London buildings ‘together, knotted across the city’ from Bloomsbury to Greenwich. If you only see one of the three short films, see Ptolemy Dean’s. He champions Hawksmoor’s temperamental, theatrical structures and delights in their avoidance of logical relationships between interior and exterior. Westminster Abbey’s newest surveyor barely suppresses wry glee when dismissing the dogma of ‘form follows function’ as so much ‘blah blah blah’.

While we are right to expect exhibitions to bring us closer to little-seen or iconic original works of art, the use of reproductions in the Hawksmoor show is sensitive and sufficiently thought-provoking that despite the paucity of originals the overall effect somehow works. When entering the space there is a satisfying sense of immersion, and this is difficult to achieve with 20 feet of ramped hallway. That said, perhaps better justice could have been done to this important architect’s work by siting the exhibition in the Tennant Gallery upstairs and increasing the number of original works on paper in the display.

Anthony Eyton’s 1969 Christ Church, tucked into a corner, is the show’s unostentatious star. Eyton’s perspective is governed by the position of his studio window. Hawksmoor’s steeple is ever-present in Eyton’s peripheral vision, and when he turns his full attention to it and interprets its hulking grey verticality against the sky over Spitalfields he believes he is ‘touching English architecture at its freest’, connecting Hawksmoor’s designs to the imagination and efficiency of ‘nineteenth-century engineers and today’s modernity’.

Hawksmoor's tower of St George in the EastHawksmoor’s tower of St George in the East

As this exhibition amply demonstrates, the destruction of the Second World War seeded the emergence of passionate conservation efforts. The 1970s were a turning point for Hawksmoor’s public profile. Iain Sinclair’s ‘Lud Heat’, which explored the poetics of his London churches, emerged in 1975. The Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields galvanised and began their long and ultimately successful multi-million pound campaign to save and restore the church in the following year. In 1977 a major exhibition of Hawksmoor’s work was held at the Whitechapel Gallery. Buildings that James Ralph described in his characteristically blustering Georgian prose as ‘mere Gothique [sic] heaps of stone, without form or order’ captivated the public. Howard Colvin’s entry on Hawksmoor in the Biographical Dictionary of British Architects confidently asserted that by the turn of the 18th century, Hawksmoor was ‘more assured in his command of the classical vocabulary than the untrained Vanbrugh, more imaginative in his vision than the intellectual Wren.’ Kerry Downes’ accomplished books on Hawksmoor contributed to a revival of interest in English Baroque. Indeed, Downes has claimed that an article in The Architectural Review first sparked his interest in the architect.

Astutely, Architect of the Imagination includes FR Yerbury’s photograph of St Mary Woolnoth, which shows off the deep shadowy striations punctuating the chunky stonework of its windowless facade. Only two years earlier, TS Eliot’s modernist masterpiece The Wasteland immortalised the bells of St Mary’s and their ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’.  The 1924 image was the frontispiece for Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel’s Hawksmoor, the young architect’s first big written project and the first serious study of Hawksmoor’s work. Arguing persuasively that Hawksmoor deserved greater credit and appreciation, he hoped the book would stir readers to go out to St Anne’s Limehouse, Greenwich Hospital or All Souls’ College and discover Hawksmoor’s spaces for themselves. The Royal Academy’s exhibition invites us to do the same. Linger in the Architecture Space but let this brief encounter with Hawksmoor and his impact on later artists, writers and architects lead you to visit his buildings and see them afresh.

Fact File

Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination
Royal Academy, London until 17 June

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