Issue Number: 114
Anthony Eyton RA, 'Christ Church', 1969. © Anthony Eyton/Courtesy of the artist.
The architect Richard MacCormac RA discusses a new show in the Academy’s Architecture Space on the influence that Nicholas Hawksmoor has had on generations of artists, architects and writers. Interview by Eleanor Mills
"When people think of Nicholas Hawksmoor (1662-1736), they think of archetypal British Baroque architecture. But in my mind, Hawksmoor was much more of a mannerist, because he combined so many different architectural styles.
"Hawksmoor was operating at a time when architectural form was disciplined by its classical legacy. He worked in Sir Christopher Wren’s office and later became surveyor to the 1711 commission to build 50 churches, inspired by Wren’s architectural achievements after the Great Fire of 1666. Perhaps, because Hawksmoor was working under the busy Wren, he could be more inventive because no-one was taking much notice of what he was doing. He built six in total: Christ Church, Spitalfields, St Anne, Limehouse, St George-in-the-East, St George, Bloomsbury, St Mary Woolnoth (the oddest of all, in the City) and St Alfege, Greenwich.
Richard MacCormac RA’s Kendrew Quadrangle at St John’s College, Oxford. © Peter Durant. "We can tell from his imaginative combinations of architectural form that Hawksmoor was a maverick and terrifically innovative. I think that is why so many artists and writers have admired his work. Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair’s books were inspired by mystic lines that join Hawksmoor’s churches, and painters such as Leon Kossoff and Anthony Eyton RA have been entranced by Christ Church, Spitalfields, much as I have.
"I walk past Christ Church several times a week and its vast, unadorned, north flank always takes me by surprise. It looks as though it is straight from Italy, with its small porthole windows redolent of Alberti’s Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini (1450). Yet the double-arched windows cut precisely into the wall, with no pilasters, are reminiscent of the refinement of surface seen in the work of Palladio (1508-80). Contrary to these more classical solutions, Hawksmoor brought the tower west to the front of the church – a completely gothic notion that differed from contemporaneous churches such as James Gibbs’s St Martin-in-the-Fields. The tower of Christ Church does not sit on top of the church, but penetrates the entire façade. Typical of Hawksmoor’s compositional integrity, the screen walls that make up the shoulders of the tower have a hidden concavity, as you can see in Eyton’s painting Christ Church (1969).
"By amalgamating so many elements, Hawksmoor reinterpreted classicism and brought a sense of presence to his buildings. Leon Kossoff’s paintings of the church in the 1980s and 90s (above left) describe this sense of presence vividly. For me, Hawksmoor’s churches look right back at you when you look at them, as if to challenge you in return. Kendrew Quadrangle the building I designed at St John’s College Oxford, may well be subconsciously informed by this."