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BOOK

REVIEW

Sir John Soane and London By Ptolemy Dean. Lund Humphries, 2006. 248pp.£40

Ever since Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction, a working knowledge of John Soane has been an essential tool in the baggage of anyone engaged in architectural discourse.

Soane had also been useful to 20th-century architecture back in the 1930s, when John Summerson wrote a series of articles about his stereometric forms, decoration and spaces which, he hinted, were a kind of evidence for Modernism's continuity within the great architectural tradition. At the time, Summerson was a committed Modernist member of the MARS group and, like the later Sigfried Gideon, was anxious to deploy whatever historical precedent for Modernism he could find.

After the war, Dorothy Stroud's pioneering but unsatisfactory monograph on Soane remained the main text until the late 1960s, the postComplexity era, when the Soane academic industry heaved itself into existence - its cornerstone must be Gillian Darley's biography, John Soane: An Accidental Romantic (AJ 23.09.99).

Now, to his earlier book on Soane's country houses (also in AJ 23.09.99), Ptolemy Dean adds Sir John Soane and London.

There are two Soanes.

One Soane the master of sublime, reductionist Classicism, epitomised in those sombre and troubling photographs taken by Steele and Yerbury at the Bank of England in the late 1920s, when his best spaces there were being demolished. Though other London examples have gone or been altered, the Dulwich Picture Gallery - a dinkier, more primitive version of the same thing - is happily extant.

Then there is a Soane who is little discussed: the Soane of those three marvellous matchbox-sized rooms at No 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields through which you blissfully squirm to get at the Hogarths and the room with folding walls at the back. This is the Soane you glimpse from the back firstoor windows: a collection of gimcrack rooftop lanterns and glazed boxes which provide all the subtle indirect lighting to the breakfast room and its adjunct spaces. This is Soane the prestidigitator, the creator of small-scale and wondrous illusion.

But now, Dean shows us, there is a third Soane. This is Soane the architect making a buck in private practice. It is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that famous people can live on air or have a private income. Some can and do - Soane couldn't and didn't. So one important thing this book highlights is that, although he was pretty well off, this was because he worked very hard.

And worked on really mundane commissions such as valuations and surveys. Dean says: 'These surveys were key to forging the client linkages that were vital in the development of his practice as a whole.' But, modern readers need to realise, surveys and valuations were exactly what architects used to do.

The book is divided into four parts. First is a brief discussion about Soane's London practice and a little about his life. You have to read Darley for the detail, although there is a nice Soanean dig at architectural busybodies: 'Any fashionable Amateur armed with a little brief authority has the power of controlling the architect, or paralysing the best energies of his mind.'

Then there are eight case studies - among them, the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; St Peter's, Walworth; and some Whitehall interiors, including those in Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street. The final part, perhaps the most important, is a gazetteer: a new list of all the London jobs mentioned in the Soane archive and arranged by London borough. Dean quotes Soane on London: 'It must be considered as the great theatre best suited for displaying the abilities and calling into action the talents of the learned of every description.'

The section before this is puzzling - the colour pages given over to 22 of Dean's watercolour-wash and quavering-line sketches.

They are nice enough but not exactly consequential and, when Martin Charles' photos are all reproduced in black and white and would have been marvellous in colour, are maybe not really justified. Dean's trembling line must have been quite difficult to sustain without a pencil guideline and you wonder, since Soane's work is anything but tentative, why Dean adopted this draughtsmanly affectation.

Will the architectural illuminati need to buy Sir John Soane and London? Architecture school libraries certainly must.

But the detail, if sometimes brief, of Soane's everyday practice is terri-c stuff - much better than the trainspotting it might seem to be.

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