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New book celebrates Thomas Hardy the architect

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Rob Bevan traces the history of architecture and the novelist through Kester Rattenbury’s new book, The Wessex Project

That Thomas Hardy wasn’t just the author of The Woodlanders and the Mayor of Casterbridge but also a practising architect before turning to literature is well known. But according to a fascinating new book by Kester Rattenbury, Hardy continued to be an architect throughout his life with his novels akin to an experimental architectural project through which he sought to influence the built environment.

From Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice to Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, non-fiction manifestos have been intrinsic to architectural development. However, prior to Rattenbury’s Thomas Hardy, Architect: The Wessex Project, and with the exception of novels where architecture is the subject matter (The Fountainhead being the most obvious case) the links between architecture and fiction have only been tentatively explored. This delay is curious because the connection between architecture and the novel is long-standing, manifest early in the Gothic fantasies of Beckford and Walpole whose fantastical written work was matched by real-world building projects.

The house as fictional character – often malevolent – has been a frequent theme of non-fiction

The house as fictional character – often malevolent – has also been a frequent theme; from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 The House of the Seven Gables to homes such as Satis House (Great Expectations) or Wuthering Heights which counterposes the titular rough farmhouse with genteel Thrushcross Grange. This continued into the 20th century in imaginary homes such as Manderlay in du Maurier’s Rebecca and EM Forster’s Howard’s End (Alan Powers has recently written convincingly on the novel’s dwellings as metonyms). It is also found in children’s fiction, such as Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe books where the ancient house plays a central role. In Australian children’s literature one can even trace the shift from the Eurocentric hearth as the heart of a home to the post-federation communal verandah with its face to the sea and back to the bush.

Architecture can also be metaphor – Ivo Andrić’s tale of the betrayal of tolerance in Yugoslavia, The Bridge on the Drina, for instance, or The Spire by William Golding. And in contemporary fiction, architecture may become the explicit structural device for the literary content – 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in George Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, for instance, or Alaa-Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.

Rattenbury, however, seeks to convince us that Hardy used architecture in his novels not simply as a literary device but as treatises in an all-encompassing lifetime project – using them to say something about the built environment. While his only substantial built work while a novelist was his own somewhat flawed home, Max Gate (pictured top), Hardy used writing, mapping, illustrations and early optical technology such as the camera lucida to convince his readers of the value of vernacular buildings as well as to conjure up Wessex as a backdrop to his plots. He was active in the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Rattenbury thinks that there is a good case for seeing Hardy as among the greatest of all conceptual architects, the precursor to the speculative, imaginary architectural projects of the late-20th and 21st-century practice, which may use books, drawing, exhibitions, furniture and other routes to test ideas. Rattenbury maintains that Hardy did this consciously and draws explicit parallels with the non-built projects of Koolhaas, Venturi and Tschumi. She also makes the case that the framing and cropping devices that Hardy uses in scenes such as Bathsheba at the sheep-shearing supper, anticipated architecture’s interest in the cinematic. This might be drawing a long bow.

Few thinkers, artists or writers have turned their hand to bricks and mortar building – Wittgenstein, Twain and JMW Turner are among the sparse examples. The socialist poet and gay rights campaigner Edward Carpenter, whose own house at Millthorpe in Derbyshire was a demonstration project for a new way of living that influenced Barry Parker, Raymond Unwin and the garden city movement, is arguably another. Others have transferred an architectural sensibility into their chosen medium – Kraftwerk for instance, founded by former architecture student Ralf Hütter; or the fashion of Hussein Chalayan.

Hardy, Rattenbury suggests, was a pioneer in making the architectural a centerpiece of his creative output. He was, she says, ‘a full century and several major architectural revolutions ahead of its time’.

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The Wessex Project: Thomas Hardy, Architect, by Kester Rattenbury, published by Lund Humphries

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Readers' comments (1)

  • As a lifelong Hardy addict (my grandmother, as child, knew Thomas Hardy) and having read everything he has written many times over, I am always happy to have another book on Hardy.
    I enjoyed this book, and I admired the argument that his architectural training helped shape his view of the world. To be honest, Hardy was not a particularly good architect – Max Gate is little more than depressing – and his interests were more in conservation. But what really leapt out of this book is the way he created a fictional-real world with his Wessex, like Narnia or Middle Earth. A good read but a slightly tenuous theory that Hardy's training did have such a strong influence on his novels. But my, it reminds you what a forward thinker he was and what a magnificent writer.

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