Clare Melhuish reviews Sir John Soane's Museum anniversary programme
Sir John Soane, the 250th anniversary of whose birth is celebrated in September, had his eye on 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields for some time before finally purchasing and immediately demolishing it. The new house he built in its place does not have the extraordinary originality of No 13 next door, now Sir John Soane's Museum, but it certainly stands proud of its context and as part of the trio of houses (12, 13 and 14) that Sir John Summerson, during his time as curator at the museum, envisaged as 'a national monument of some consequence'.
The museum is now launching a £1.3 million authentic restoration of No 14. But perhaps the important thing to highlight at this time is the fact that the 'poetry and imagination', as Stephen Bayley put it last week, of Soane's architectural vision, could never have been realised in today's planning context, where it has become almost impossible to make even the slightest alteration to the historic fabric of the city, let alone demolish and replace whole buildings.
So restrictive has the framework become that there is even some question over whether English Heritage will allow No 14 to be returned to its original Soane design, after years of alterations.
But, as Bayley pointed out, Soane's entire lifework represents a rejection of the copy-book method of architectural design, which had, in his day, ensured the perpetuation of traditional and Classical models, and in ours has spawned a whole new era of pastiche, at the expense of originality, poetry and imagination.
The collection of archaeological remains that Soane amassed was not an 'antiquarian' endeavour. On the contrary, it was intended, in Bayley's words, as a sort of 'artistic incident room', not to be copied but to elevate and inspire the imagination.
Indeed, Soane was much more impressed by 'oddities than conventional classics' in his scavenging activities, resulting in a museum that is 'one of the most magical places in London, if not the world', and a body of architectural work that 'soared beyond the limitations of Georgian builders'.
For Bayley, 'Soane and Beethoven have a lot in common'; their brilliance embedded in a subtle subversion of the prevailing artistic norms. Soane was absolutely dedicated to his work, declaring that nothing was to obstruct him from 'the ruling passion of [his] life'.He was arrogant and unpleasant in the pursuit of his goals, but he was not elitist, being equally dedicated to making his work and sources of inspiration accessible to others, including clients, 'amateurs' and students.
He believed it was nothing less than immoral not to show a client a model of a design, and he entrusted Nos 12 and 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields to trustees for the public on his death. Now they are to be joined, finally, by No 14, it seems a timely moment to celebrate the role of creative imagination in architecture today.
Stephen Bayley was speaking at the launch of the Sir John Soane's Museum 250th Anniversary Programme, held at 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, on April 16th.