Kevin McCloud on Nicholas Hawksmoor

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  • Hawksmoor was obsessed by mathematics, which shows in his architecture. There’s a comparison with Bach here in the way that Hawksmoor took the vertical and geometric shapes and played with them and incorporated them into a classical language of buildings and consequently gave them a new baroque energy, and – something that Ackroyd touches on – an almost masonic quality. In that way he evolves Wren’s language out of the Italianate and into something much more muscular and of the eighteenth century.


    Hawksmoor started his career as Wren’s apprentice and he was always living in Wren’s shadow. Wren was incredibly prolific. As a surveyor at the time of the Great Fire of London, he really was the right man at the right time, but with Hawksmoor there’s the impression that he was the right man at the wrong time. Wren produced many more churches, the cathedral, and was a social leading light; Hawksmoor was a troubled soul, had a difficult career and by the time he came along, the bulk of the work had been done. But that’s not to say that he didn’t have his place. He’s more interesting for the way he takes the language of Wren, which was essentially an anglicised version of Bernini [architect of St Peter’s Square in Rome], and turned it into something more abstract. It points, I think, to French revolutionary architecture by Etienne-Louis Boullée [architectural theoretician who favoured a ‘monumental’ architecture that employed both emotion and reason, and used simple geometrical shapes such as pyramids and cylinders] and to people like John Soane [English neo-classical architect who designed the Bank of England]. It’s experimental, it’s geometric, it pushes the boundaries. It doesn’t rely on models that took for their antecedents places like the Colosseum and Roman palaces. It really tries to move the language on. He was an experimenter and a very brave man.

    If he were around today, he probably wouldn’t be building churches. It would be very un-PC for the Church of England to move into multi-ethnic areas and build great big churches by someone like Norman Foster. Nowadays, if you want to build a community focus, you put up a Tesco. Because he also did buildings like All Souls College, Oxford, and was quite collaborative – he worked with John Vanbrugh – I think he would be Richard Rogers. I think Rogers is more quirky and has followed his own route more eccentrically than other architects.

    A new series of ‘Grand Designs’ starts on February 28 on Channel 4 at 9pm, followed by ‘Grand Designs:Trade Secrets’ on More4 at 10pm.

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