The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
The place I want to talk about is made of stone, a material that is everywhere in central London, and in every form; hewn, slivered, restrained, reconstituted, a valuable material devalued by ubiquity and constructional taxidermy, diced within an inch of it’s life, rendering emasculated fragments of buildings, shorn of essentiality as crust-less loaves.
The beauty of stone -it’s real beauty- derives from its natural home, the quarry. I have never visited one myself, but I have read of Michelangelo’s trips to Carrara, and imagined the relief he must have felt to be once again excused from the intrigue-stoked white heat of the papal and ducal courts, to make the journey into serene Nature. The clenching trepidation he must have experienced at the prospect of return, with the cargo loaded, only relieved by the knowledge that his ‘zen’ would soon be soon restored by another journey, this time into himself, with his hostage stone. Himself; his nature and ‘Nature’; essentially the same ‘bolthole’ as we shall see.
Michelangelo, perhaps more than anyone, must have known - as with picked flowers- that something irretrievable is lost the moment the concretion is rent from its natural abode. It’s a death of sorts, but an afterlife of sorts is attainable, by way of the nature of Man.
Glimpsing it first in the oblique, a charming symmetrical grouping of four tree-scaled stone columns, a brick torso and a floating crown of timber ‘mutules’, St Paul’s Covent Garden cuts a redeeming presence. Designed by Inigo Jones in 1632, I regularly find my way back to this proscenium -as all the best piazzas are- , for no particular reason. I never pay much attention to the wonderfully crass street shows, and am even less interested in the swanky shops and restaurants. As I approach on this occasion, I watch the church/piazza fragment gathering itself before me, and keep a coy distance. I photograph it before it completely materialises in order to affect a comparison between it, and its context.
Is it really anything special? I ask myself. ‘Yes’, I decide finally, It is. But why?
It’s size, its scale?. The venerable patina of it’s battered and bruised matter?
The underlying craftsmanship? Hmmmm. No, the real quality lies in the sophistication of the governing schema, the product of that ‘other’ Nature mentioned earlier. To fully appreciate what I mean, it’s perhaps useful to briefly consider that other more famous but -in my opinion- lesser St Paul’s, some twenty five minutes’ walk to the east.
In designing the new post-Great Fire St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren not only rebuilt Inigo’s destroyed handi-work, but also paid him a great compliment by reviving the great Corinthian portico that had fronted his earlier renovation. Wren admired that portico greatly, but somehow I doubt he really ‘got’ it, or in fact the architecture of Inigo Jones in general. Wren’s masterpiece was inspired by the Baroque theatricality of Bernini, whom he had met early-on in his architectural career, while Jones, nominally ‘Palladian’ was actually interested in more ‘fundamental’ things; Vitruvius, the Greeks, the poetry of construction-, as his theoretical tract on Stonehenge testifies.
Wren’s was one of the most supreme intellects these shores has ever produced, but ‘architecture is not made with the brain’. If -metaphorically speaking- Wren was interested in a high level of modern ‘Arabic’, Jones was interested in ‘Fusha’, the pure form of language that allows the almost algebraic development of new vocabularies using the most ancient roots; while this is just what seemed to be beyond Wren (and Bernini), it is just what Jones was all about. He alone saw the possibility of using Vitruvius’ primitive Tuscan order for a church which even deemed appropriate for country houses at best.
It’s obvious when you think about it, the wide spacing of the ‘heavy’ columns and great projecting timber canopy, tends towards the most basic kind of stone and timber construction. The primordial barn of Jesus’ birth.
Where others saw coarseness, Jones saw purity. But nativity does not necessarily mean naivety. To the initiated, Jones’ Tuscan columns are a model of sophisticated eloquence but the simple mouldings -points of gathering and transition at Base and Capital- of this particular Order, are powerfully communicative at this scale, in any case. Mounted on rough stone plinths that appear as some kind of impossibly-naturally-occurring cubes of rock, as if the work of man and the work of God are juxtaposed. God’s finger touching man’s, nothing less than the human culture of dominion and custodianship signified, ‘the’ point of confluence of Abrahamic and Classical European philosophy. A hard-won reconciliation.
It’s finely judged stuff. A young Giuseppe Terragni was once castigated for employing orders with the lowermost moulding mounted directly on the ground with no base or plinth, but his critics failed to realise, as he did, that the continued innocent use of this language was no longer possible, the principles underlying it required recasting for the nascent industrial age, a project almost single-handedly completed by Le Corbusier, the genius of whose innovations drew on Classical language without aping it, being rooted in both the ‘Tuscan’ legacy of order through matter and the ‘Venetian’ inheritance of abstract order; the ‘thingness’ of Michelangelo, and Palladio’s mathematics. Tectonics and weight versus light and colour. Even today, these are the parameters within which architecture continues to operate-we are still humans after all. The best work keeps these poles in balance and Inigo’s St Paul’s is among the best work.
Quietly assertive, sheltering, reassuring, this product of many hands and minds -of which Inigo was simply (and not so simply) the latest-, working across generations, to a plan greater than individual wit and whim, approximates to a ‘natural’ formation; the need to abscond from the white-heat of the city not so pressing then! Inigo’s masterpiece is a Testament to the importance of humility and learning to the development and relevance of architecture, an unfashionable interjection but all the more vital for being so.