Kevin McCloud on Nicholas Hawksmoor
Born in 1959, designer and TV presenter Kevin McCloud is Channel 4's architectural anchor. He has presented self-build property programme 'Grand Designs' for eight years, averaging 5.1 million viewers a show, and hosts coverage of the annual Stirling Prize for Architecture. A former interior and lighting designer, his work includes the rococo-style ceiling in the Food Halls at Harrods
If I’m honest, I know very little about Hawksmoor except that I’ve read the great fictionalised biography by that other great Londoner, Peter Ackroyd. I’ve read all of Ackroyd’s books. I could have easily have chosen him as my favourite Londoner because he has shown me London in a different way, in a sort of palimpsest way, as a layered narrative. He’s very good at peeling away the modern glitz and the modern dirt and finding the ancient London underneath.
Ackroyd sees Hawksmoor as a pre-Enlightenment figure, reaching back; a character plagued by demons in a very medieval way. At the time Hawksmoor was working, Britain was a powerhouse of intellectual thought and the Enlightenment was just beginning. You were seeing the work of Newton and Boyle building up a head of steam, and the move towards rationality and the growth of new medicine. Ackroyd puts Hawksmoor at that juncture between a kind of medieval view of the world and the Enlightenment which blossomed and took British society towards the rational.
Last week I was at the newly restored Christ Church in Spitalfields, which is looking splendid. I think I prefer it still from the outside rather than the inside; the inside seems a bit dead now that it’s been restored to its pristine 1729 glory. The outside I think is magnificent. Christ Church is really interesting. I didn’t realise this, but the reason why it’s such a big church – the nave is, I think, taller than Exeter Cathedral – was that at the time there were lots of minor religious and ethnic groups in east London, with a lot of racial and religious tension between them. The Church of England thought: Let’s build a monumental building that can act as some kind of architectural focus for the area and that will magnetise people. It was built not as a place of multiple worship but as a societal galvaniser, which I think churches were historically. They were big, solid, secure, permanent buildings that valued craftsmanship. They felt like they were going to be there forever.
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