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Illuminating scholarship


Sir John Soane is unlike other architects, argues the Royal Academy, because his work is not just of historic interest but continues to influence directly the work of living architects and artists. Few would argue with this statement but Soane's extraordinary inspirational role is of relatively recent origin. His argumentative manner and radical interpretation - indeed rejection - of much of the Classical tradition made him many personal and professional enemies during his lifetime, and there were no followers capable of sustaining or developing his inventive, idiosyncratic approach. To all intents and purposes, Soane's style died with him in 1837.

Only this century has he been rediscovered and appreciated. First (and rather uncomfortably), his abstraction and reduction of traditional Classical motifs, and his powerful use of primary geometrical forms and, above all, of light, attracted historians who claimed him as a pioneer of Modernism. More recently Soane has been reclaimed by the Classicists, who point out that his abstraction lies well within the precedent of Roman architecture, and that many of his characteristic simple forms (such as his incised mouldings) relate to theories - much debated in Soane's lifetime - about the primitive and utilitarian origins of Classical architecture.

If you want to make up your own mind about the nature of Soane and the meaning of his architecture, this is the moment. An exhibition at the Royal Academy (with a hefty catalogue) and two new books give an unparalleled opportunity to understand the man and his work.

The title of the exhibition, 'John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light', suggests an intention to emphasise the modern aspect of Soane and the influence he has had on contemporary designers. This seems increasingly to be the line put out by the Soane Museum itself (whose curators are largely responsible for the ra show), and is revealed by its recent policy to display work by current practitioners (for example, Frank Gehry). The encouragement of contemporary art and architecture is, argue the curators, what Soane was interested in and what the museum was founded to do.

This somewhat didactic appreciation of Soane does not dominate the ra exhibition; what does is the manner of the display. Its designer, Piers Gough, places Soane's powerful forms centre-stage and he has had the admirable idea of recreating a series of Soane's domes and one of the long-lost and lamented interiors of the Bank of England. However, these recreations are substantially reduced in scale and in detail, so they do not have the impact in reality that the idea no doubt had in theory.

But what of the content of the exhibition? A problem facing any exhibition of Soane in London is how to complement the Soane Museum which is, in effect, one of the best permanent architecture exhibitions in the world. The answer, of course, is to show things not seen in the museum and to structure the display differently. Strangely the exhibition is a little half-hearted in this respect, and there are moments when it seems like an away day from the museum with familiar objects and drawings in a slightly different context.

What makes the show is the material about Soane's Bank of England, which is now generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest British buildings ever constructed and one of the greatest single losses when virtually all was demolished during the 1920s. There is a very useful new £40,000 model of the bank as it looked at the time of Soane's death - but the building was, of course, all about interiors. These are revealed by a deeply moving computer-generated walk through the bank, which follows an itinerary drawn up by Soane in 1814. The show is worth visiting for this video alone.

The first new book is by Gillian Darley; the second, by one of the exhibition curators, Ptolemy Dean. Darley's is a solid and immensely well-researched biography of Soane. She has gone through all the documents in the museum - many never fully examined before - to piece together an extraordinary picture of Soane as a family man and architect.

This picture is far from attractive, for Soane was given to turning petty disagreements into monumental vendettas and clearly failed to show even the basic care and consideration that the average family needs. It becomes easier to understand how his son George grew up into such a vengeful monster whose twin obsessions were to do-down his father and get his hands on the family fortune.

What comes across is the way that Soane's personal behaviour - which can at best be called enigmatic and is more often termed 'contradictory' - is so closely bound up with his architectural creativity. He was jealous of the success of his rivals and criticised them in public in an unprecedented manner; but this was because every commission he thought misplaced not only denied him the chance to develop his own architecture but offended his artistic judgement. Darley's book is a pleasure to read - for its insights into the man, its easy and erudite style, and the depth of its learning - and is currently the last word in Soane scholarship.

Dean's book is less ambitious but equally scholarly, and it is more architectural and original. He shows how Soane's country house designs (which represent more than half of his 300 projects) were crucial to his architectural development; they were 'working laboratories' in which Soane developed his architectural obsessions, including axial symmetry, the organisation of striking routes through buildings, and the use of light and shade. Dean has also discovered that many of Soane's country houses have never been properly examined.

Dean's analysis, which focuses on the detailed examination of 10 houses, is given great vigour and character by the inclusion of his own breathtaking watercolours of Soane's buildings. If one ever needed to be convinced of the imaginative power, intellectual authority and visual beauty of Soane's architecture, this is the book to do it.

Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian and teacher

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