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Classical complexities

Hawksmoor's London Churches: Architecture and Theology By Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey. Chicago University Press, 2000. 172pp. £24

Nicholas Hawksmoor was rediscovered in the 1950s, rescued from the shade cast by his great master Sir Christopher Wren and flamboyant employer Sir John Vanbrugh. During the last 10 years, interest in Hawksmoor's work has reached a peak of enthusiasm. The originality and power of his invention within the Classical language, the abstract and sculptural quality of his architectural forms, and his manipulation of light over layered surfaces now inspire laymen and architects alike.

Yet this surge of interest has not been accompanied by a flood of publications. Kerry Downes cornered the market in Hawksmoor studies in the 1950s and '60s, and his works were so well researched and perceptive that they have proved a hard act to follow. Moreover, although there is extensive contemporary material - over 500 drawings by Hawksmoor survive, along with letters and documents - these throw little light on Hawksmoor the man and artist. In many ways he remains a mystery.

The area of Hawksmoor's professional life that is particularly well documented is his church building under the 1711 Act for 50 new churches in London. As Downes discovered, it is a rich area for investigation. So it is no surprise that Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey - a Canadian architectural historian with a passion for English Classicists - has attempted a new interpretation of Hawksmoor by looking at his London churches. But does he advance the story beyond the point where Downes left off?

Du Prey has constructed his book in three stages, dealing first with Hawksmoor's education under Wren. He then analyses how the church liturgy that inspired the commissioners for 50 churches was creatively fused with Wren and Hawksmoor's theories of architectural evolution and church design. The book concludes with an examination of the churches themselves, and of surviving drawings.

The investigation of the theology underpinning both the commission's brief to its architects and Hawksmoor's designs is the major thrust of this book. Du Prey goes into fascinating detail about the ideas, theories and images that would have inspired Hawksmoor's ecclesiastical architecture. These range from the wonders of the ancient world, such as the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, to such legendary structures as the Temple of Solomon.Discovering the key to the reconstruction of this building, which could be seen as underpinning the divine origin of Classical architecture and proportion, obsessed many a sleuth.

The third section of the book is entitled 'Hawksmoor's Aspiring Steeples', for du Prey structures his investigation of Hawksmoor's six major commissioners' churches around a discussion of spires. This is an odd way to tackle such a complex subject, for while encouraging a discussion of Hawksmoor's idiosyncratic sources and his powers of composition, it relegates plan, section, construction, and organisation of internal volumes to a sideshow. Although the author reveals all that one could want to know about the famed mausoleumlike spire of St George, Bloomsbury, we learn little new about the church's equally puzzling interior and plan.What, for instance, was the purpose of the double-height narthex to the north?

More disappointing is the fact that du Prey does not really consider the urban consequences of Hawksmoor's six churches, their influence on the theoretical and actual planning of London.

Most were built in expanding areas on the periphery of the city, and there was certainly an intention that they should generate (and control) surrounding development.

Du Prey does make a new and significant contribution to the story of Hawksmoor and his London churches - but the definitive book is still to be written.

Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian

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