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hawksmoor-somerset1Hawksmoor’s architecture is truly inspired and has managed to remain contemporary even though it was created a long time ago, specifically at the beginning of the 18th century. In a previous article written about a Hawksmoor exhibition at the Royal academy about a year ago, I mentioned that a halo of mystery surrounds his work. Strange and often obscure characteristics have been attributed to both him and his churches. I believe that the dark tales that have been spread around him mostly have to do with his unique talent that makes his work stand out centuries after it was created. His buildings do not demonstrate any aesthetic obsessions or recurring formal patterns. Many talented architects have partaken in collectives or schools that dictated certain styles or a degree of uniformity in their aesthetic. However each of Hawksmoor’s churches seems to have a ‘life’ of its own, unique, complete, inspired and inspiring. This is I believe where all the mystery derives from: the fact that he cannot be categorised. His work is too free and society has disliked its free spirits as often as it has glorified them.

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These buildings have aged gracefully and visiting any of them, one experiences the rich quality of space they create both in their interior and in the street they are located in. They are known for their spires which bear very few similarities to each other. St.Luke’s in Old Street for example has a most unusual vertically striped obelisk for a spire. St. George’s in Bloomsbury has horizontal ribbing and King George’s statue on top surrounded by sculptures of mythical creatures at its base.

Christ Church’s (Spitalfields) analogies with its portico and stairs and most importantly its location that renders it visible from a distance, has an individuality, a presence. I am not exactly sure of how I can describe it but it stands its ground with a sort of pride. In fact all of Hawksmoor churches stand their ground with pride and act as landmarks and centres of orientation.

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The Somerset House exhibition on Hawksmoor churches that I visited examined closely each building. Architectural photographer Hélène Binet, with her beautiful large format photographs shared her attentive and very penetrating point of view. Zooming out she observes the churches from far away documenting how they affect their surroundings. Then coming close, she looks at the details and discovers the very visible traces of time on them. Elegant wire structures held resin scale models of the spires giving a 3D perspective to the experience.

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Going through the rooms and looking at these photos I was struck (once more) with the realisation that some architecture is so unique that remains timeless and should be rediscovered again and again as we never stop learning from it or appreciate it. A talented photographer’s point of view when it is as poetic, reveals new sides to familiar places.

Looking at these pictures brought to mind Jean Cocteau’s quote from A Call to Order (1926) (Le Rappel a l’ ordre) :

“Such is the role of poetry. It unveils, in the strict sense of the word. It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically”

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Exhibition’s web site here

Hélène Binet’s web site here

More about Nicholas Hawksmoor here

Previous article on Hawksmoor from Architecture as here

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Nicholas Hawksmoor has always been UK architecture’s underdog. Having worked at the side of Christopher Wren for a number of years on projects as important as St. Paul’s cathedral and Greenwich hospital, initially he was rather known for that, than for the few but really important buildings he designed on his own. Looking at Christ Church Spitalfields or St. George in the East one realises that his design idiom was as unique as to pronounce his contribution to English baroque pivotal. Regardless of the fact that currently he is celebrated as an architectural genius, he acquired his fame throughout modernity because his churches were associated with dark urban legends to the point he was mentioned as the devil-architect. This is partly because of the common knowledge that he was a free-mason. However Wren was as well but nothing of the sort was ever mentioned about him. Why is it then that Hawksmoor became the inspiration for the dark graphic novel ‘From Hell’ which depicts Jack the Ripper’s famous killings, or Ian Sinclair’s poem Lud Heat (1975) where his churches’ placement within the city’s fabric was supposed to have a cryptic meaning?

Left photo: Painting of Christ Church Spitalfields by anonymous artist around 1875/Middle photo: P.32 of Alan Moor and Eddie Cambell’s ‘From Hell’ Graphic novel (1999)/Right photo: panel from the exhibition

In the exhibition of Hawksmoor’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts, these mystic stories were mentioned next to copies of some of the architect’s original drawings and a few videos where contemporary architects and theorists such as Ptolemy Dean speak of Hawksmoor’s architecture with great enthusiasm. Regardless of the exhibition’s small size, the information provided was well rounded and comprised an interesting and concise whole.

First photo: Royal Academy of Arts picture of St. George Bloomsbury/ Second photo: Celia Paul’s 2010 painting of St. George Bloomsbury/Third photo: panel from the exhibition/Fourth photo: Office of Sir John Soan RA St.George Bloomsbury produced to accompany Royal Academy Lecture IV 1807

Having examined all the ‘evidence’ provided I still could not make up my mind on why it took centuries for Hawksmoor to acquire his proper position in the architectural ‘hall of fame’. My guess would be that he was so much more ahead of his time that he was literally not understood in order to be celebrated by his contemporaries or even the next generations. There is a halo of mystery and wonder around any artist that is as charismatic. In Hawksmoor’s case it even lead to attributing to him supernatural aspirations and powers. Beyond doubt, being exquisitely talented as he was was already supernatural.

Left photo: Nicholas Hawksmoor Greenwich Central Dome/ Middle photo: Charles E. Hardaker’s 1966 painting of St. Mary Woolworth in the City of London called ‘Hawksmoor Baroque’/ Royal Academy Hawksmoor exhibition May 2012

Read more about Hawksmoor here

Read Steve Rose’s 2006 Guardian article about Hawksmoor here

Scroll down to the ‘ Devil’s Architect’ part of the Fortean Times article called City of Symbols.  link here

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