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Ancient ambition

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review - Obsession: John Wood and the Creation of Georgian Bath At the Building of Bath Museum, The Countess of Huntingdon's Chapel, The Vineyards, Bath, until 6 February 2005

'Obsession' is a title somewhat tainted by the whiff of an oversold designer fragrance. It is also a breath of fresh air in this excellent new exhibition at the Building of Bath Museum.

Its subject is John Wood, the 18th-century architect, whose vision created the city of Bath.

It is hard to imagine a modern figure whose ambition and achievement could even come close to Wood's. What was built there remains a lasting testimony to him but represents only part of his plans for the creation of a new Jerusalem, nestling in the hills of north Somerset.

The exhibition succinctly describes Wood's origins and introduces his various obsessions - Palladian architecture, ancient British history and freemasonry. Although it may be a rather unfair summary of his mental capacities, Wood could be viewed as barking mad. He was nothing if not extreme, and his obsession was driven by a fundamentalist belief in the divine origins of his architecture.

The show explains how Wood elaborated the story of King Bladud (Bath's legendary founder), claiming that he was present at the building of the second temple in Jerusalem, and was responsible for bringing the principle of architecture to the Druids before finally founding the city of Bath.

His plans for the city were conceived on an epic scale, rooted in the ancient truths he claimed to have discovered, although these claims were often highly questionable. The Royal Circus in Bath was his temple of the sun: a perfect circle, 318ft in diameter, which was a measurement Wood claimed to take directly from the stone circles at Stonehenge and Stanton Drew. The space is now full of trees, which detract from the circus as originally conceived (and spark the witticism that you can't see the Wood for the trees).

The exhibition also illustrates Prior Park, the country house that looks over Bath with a placid grandeur, which was conceived as three sides of a massive dodecahedron of God-given dimensions.

There have been several designers of cities with Wood's vision and ambition, but Wood actually succeeded in building a substantial portion of his dream. This sets him apart, and creates a parallel story of extraordinary entrepreneurial success. In establishing a model of speculative development to realise his city, Wood also made himself a wealthy man.

The only disappointment in this otherwise well-conceived exhibition is the final section, entitled 'A Vision for Bath'. Here the various sponsors unwittingly reveal that their 'vision' is utterly myopic and depressing compared with Wood's.

As the exhibition points out, Wood achieved what he did despite continually being obstructed by the Bath Corporation, land owners and moneymen. The insidious banality of three infill schemes illustrated under the title 'Bath's New Buildings', the pitiful sketches showing plans for the western riverside, and the tortured proposals for redeveloping the Southgate shopping area, all reveal that while the man that made Bath died long ago, the forces that obstructed him are still alive and well.

Perhaps the next time the powers that be are tempted to emasculate or obstruct a design, they will recall this exhibition. What made 18th-century Bath great was not consensus and compromise: it was obsession and a good measure of Wood.

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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