Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

‘If Hawksmoor’s architecture is the essence of solidity, its history is anything but’

Hawksmoor review index jpg

In exploring the man and the myth, Owen Hopkins marks a shift in direction for the study of Hawksmoor

From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor, Owen Hopkins, Reaktion Books (London), 2015

It was in these very pages (digital or otherwise), in November 1941, that John Summerson published an obituary – not for a person, but for St George-in-the-East, one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s ‘big six’ and bombed during the Blitz. ‘Then, as now’, writes Summerson, ‘the churches must have seemed too noble, too sacerdotal for their neighbourhoods.’ And so he goes on to dismantle the then-myth of Hawksmoor as the ‘dull-witted’ offspring of Vanbrugh – a misleading description that saw St George-in-the-East’s gutting by incendiary bombs met with an indifference that would never have dared to have been shown to any work of Christopher Wren.

It is this obituary note that begins Owen Hopkins’ account of ‘Modern Hawksmoor’ (a very different man to the 18th-century Hawksmoor), the penultimate chapter of From the Shadows. Not to undermine the simple and effective structure of Hopkins’ study – Emergence, Achievement, Falling into Shadow, Neglect and Rehabilitation, Into the Light, Rebirth and Hawksmoor Today – the most exciting part of any new Hawksmoor study seems, for better or worse, to be how it deals with the bizarre and unruly beast that is Hawksmoor’s legacy and reputation. For Hopkins, this is the entire point. While Summerson was working against an image of Hawksmoor as a ‘dull-witted’ assistant, Hopkins is, as many will know, dealing with something very different. In a first for studies of Hawksmoor’s work, Hopkins’ book does not conclude with Hawksmoor’s death, but rather pivots around it in a biopic-worthy tale of relative fame to mockery and obscurity and back again.

‘While Summerson was working against an image of Hawksmoor as a “dull-witted” assistant, Hopkins is, as many will know, dealing with something very different’

For the straightforward, canonical texts on Hawksmoor – being Harry Goodhart-Rendel’s in 1924, Kerry Downes’ in 1987 and later Vaughan Hart – Hawksmoor’s moonlighting as an occultist devil-worshipper is something of an elephant in the room, discarded in a few lines to let history proper continue undisturbed. Goodhart-Rendel perhaps has an excuse, in that in 1924 Hawksmoor was not the architect de rigueur for any budding psychogeographer with a penchant for the occult. Most of the blame for this now ineffably long and dark shadow lies with Iain Sinclair and his 1975 text Lud Heat, which subsequently inspired Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor in 1985 (now, in its latest Penguin incarnation, with an obligatory introduction from Will Self). In a process of mythmaking rarely offered to the architect – one usually left to the press or exhibitions such as Hopkins’ own Mavericks – the Hawksmoor myth was one born of postmodern literature, at once entirely ridiculous yet feeling as though it had always been with us, skipping through time like Ackroyd’s split stories.

Historians have since, with varying degrees of defiance, avoided paying these myths lip-service. Summerson, in a letter quoted by Hopkins, went so far as to accuse the novel of ‘defiling the wells of truth’ to ‘permanently disfigure the historical image’. It is in many ways a great shame that this poor, humble 18th-century architect now cannot escape these stories of occultism, post-rationalised associations with Postmodernism, and a steakhouse in his name. Yet the steady growth in interest in Hawksmoor’s work, and therefore Hopkins’ book, owes a great deal to the existence of these myths – which are incredibly exciting if only for placing architecture in the limelight of popular culture in a way rarely seen. After all, which other architect’s work are we able to hear mention of in academic studies, novels, a TS Eliot poem and a comic by Alan Moore?

‘Despite Hawksmoor’s architecture being the essence of solidity, its history remains anything but’

Hopkins’ entry into all of this is an at-times uneasy mix of both setting the record straight with rigorous historical telling while simultaneously propagating Hawksmoor’s labels (and generating its own), and the book feels at its best when doggedly pursuing one rather than attempting to create a cohesive whole. Indeed, the whole rags-to-riches tale of Hawksmoor’s work and reputation is just as slippery a definition as any other. The upside to this is that for any diehard fan wondering why to pick up yet another Hawksmoor history, Hopkins offers more than a potted history, drawing in reactions and interpretations of earlier Hawksmoor texts – themselves part of the myth – such as Hart getting carried away with Hawksmoor’s obsession with death. While this supports the overall thesis it serves as a reminder that despite Hawksmoor’s architecture being the essence of solidity, its history remains anything but.

Less convincing, albeit thought-provoking, is the propagation of Hawksmoor as some sort of proto-postmodernist – for some perhaps akin to a devil-worshipper. Hopkins presents Lasdun, Venturi and Stirling all as architects upon whom Hawksmoor had a striking effect, but at some points the comparisons and inspirations, such as the elemental effects of light and shadow on geometrical masses, become so reductive as to lose any unique sense of connection with Hawksmoor altogether. Certainly Hawksmoor had a unique and beautiful way with Classical and Gothic elements, but this seemed to stem more from a deep interest in architectonic power than from any wilful distortion of historical rules. Hopkins himself is more convincing, placing more credence in the conveyance of authority as the reason why Hawksmoor so loved plundering the Gothic and ancient history, making the occasional outlandish statement such as the spire of St George’s, Bloomsbury. Such comparisons are brief, however, and with no great weight given to these architects’ stories they come off more as attempts at ‘maverickdom’ by proxy. Just as Hawksmoor’s buildings haunt the imagination, so too does his attractive persona of the misunderstood, mysterious underdog.

‘Hopkins highlights a shift in Hawksmoor’s role as a catalyst for modern architectural ideas, one in which a more level-headed and altogether more meaningful approach is emerging’

This is not unknown to Hopkins, who concludes in claiming that identifying with Hawksmoor is no longer a means of ‘positioning oneself as going against the grain’. While I am not entirely convinced that architecture, or the telling of its history, has moved beyond the pull of these characters, Hopkins highlights a shift in Hawksmoor’s role as a catalyst for modern architectural ideas, one in which a more level-headed and altogether more meaningful approach is emerging – Dow Jones Architects’ renovation of Spitalfields, for example – rather than vague attempts to recapture mystery and energy.

Hopkins’ study certainly has value in being the first text to put a study of Hawksmoor’s work side-by-side with one of his myths and reputation. But more importantly, even though some chapters may not entirely win over the reader, they begin new lines of questioning that could help jolt the Hawksmoor historiography out of the rut it has been in for decades. Now there is just the important case of casting HawksmoorTimothy Spall, perhaps?

From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor

Author: Owen Hopkins

Publisher: Reaktion Books (London), 2015