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Architectural Monographs: John Soane

with contributions by Sir John Summerson, by David Watkin, by G.-Tilman Mellinghoff
Academy Editions/St. Martin’s Press, 123 pp., $19.95 (paper)

John Soane: The Making of an Architect

by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey
University of Chicago Press, 408 pp., $37.50

Is it coincidence that the two strangest and most original English architects had working-class, or at best lower-middleclass, origins? Nicholas Hawksmoor—Wren’s clerk, Vanbrugh’s shadow and mentor, but in the opinion of some a greater architect than either of them—was the son of a Nottinghamshire small-holder. John Soan was the son of a bricklayer, and may have worked as a bricklayer’s assistant in his boyhood. Pierre du Prey, in the book under review, describes his slow and painful metamorphosis into Sir John Soane, architect to the Bank of England and the doyen of his profession.

Hawksmoor’s rise was less surprising because in his day architecture was not yet a clearly defined profession, and there were many routes into it. Inigo Jones, after all, had been the son of a clothworker, trained as a painter. By the time Soane was growing up in the 1760s, architecture was fast hardening into a profession, a professional was a gentleman, and it was not easy for someone with no money and without the least pretensions to gentility to become an architect, still less a successful one; since Soane, no other English architect of equivalently humble origins has risen so far.

Two obvious and opposing courses were open to a working-class boy who wanted to get to the top. He could either take on the habits and beliefs of the upper classes with such enthusiasm that he became an indistinguishable member of them, or he could set out to break the established order. Soane did both, which may help to explain the nervous irritability, coming near at times to madness, that marked his later career. Superficially he became a professional man, a gentleman, and the heir and supporter of the classical tradition which had dominated architecture for three hundred years. He was knighted, acquired a country estate and a coat of arms, and added an “e” to his surname to make it sound less plebeian. He was a member of the Academy, a collector of Greek and Roman antiquities, and the designer of grand public buildings layishly adorned with the apparatus of the five orders.

At the same time his most original and interesting buildings were completely at variance with the classical tradition—even with neoclassicism, in Soane’s day its latest and most radical manifestation. That he came from outside the establishment may have made him better able to question and break loose from its assumptions. Much of his detail was entirely personal, without historic precedent, idiosyncratic, and sometimes extremely eccentric. His buildings were, as a result, the object of much criticism, and criticisms sometimes extended into making fun of his origins. He was at all times punctilious, honorable, and reliable; he was supremely competent in the practical aspects of his craft. But he became prickly, at times splenetic, desperately sensitive to criticism, subject to persecution mania and bouts of depression; he could be a sore trial to his assistants, but they remained devoted to him.

The classical tradition in European architecture was essentially concerned with mass—mass pierced with openings and articulated with columns and pilasters; mass hollowed out into rooms and spaces, but mass rising securely from the ground and resting solidly on it. Under neoclassicism the feeling for mass if anything intensified, for the embellishments were simplified and rationalized, and the masses organized into elementary geometric shapes; buildings of vast size, instead of being divided into a hierarchy of dominant center and subsidiary wings, were expressed as simple rectangular or circular blocks or even as pyramids or spheres.

Soane set out to demolish mass. A room enclosed by four clearly defined walls and a clearly defined ceiling is the last thing one is likely to find in his buildings. Instead, his enclosing surfaces become veils or meshes, pierced, floating, and insubstantial. His genius was most strangely and wonderfully expressed in the devising of roofs and ceilings, such as were to be found in the now demolished halls of his Bank of England and Law Courts, and survive in his own house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and in some of his country houses.

Soane developed and constantly experimented with a number of different devices to get the effects he was after. The conventional classical dome, for instance, takes the form of a hemisphere resting on a drum, in its turn supported on pendentives—triangular pieces of vaulting—between arches. There is a clear separation between dome, drum, arches, and pendentives, and the drum rests obviously and securely on the pendentives and arches. Soane preferred what has been called the pendentive dome, where the curve of the pendentives is carried on into the dome, so that they form one continuous curved surface. A dome of this sort, particularly when the supporting arches are shallow, can give the effect of floating on the four points where the pendentives meet the angle of the piers.

Another means used by Soane to reduce the apparent weight of his ceilings was to float them in light, by throwing a dome or canopy across the middle section of the room, but raising the strips of ceiling to either side to a higher level and top lighting them. The most sensational example of this was in his Privy Council Room in Downing Street, the best known his own breakfast room in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (see page 20). He also had a taste for hanging a canopy or circuit of arches from the center of his ceilings, so that once again they gave the appearance of floating about the room. Another device of his was to place something clearly weighty in a position where it had no obvious support. In his Reduced Annuities Office in the Bank of England, one of his smooth, weightless pendentive domes had a great circular opening cut in the center, above which rose a ring of tall Ionic columns; bathed in light from an outer circuit of windows, they floated above the hall like a celestial vision.

Soane used these devices on their own or in all kinds of different combinations. When one raises one’s eyes to the ceiling in a Soane room, one never knows what will be seen; space can open into space like a vista through the clouds. The effects depend as much on the ingenuity with which light is introduced and reflected as on ingenuity of structure; and the same skill appears, though in a lesser degree, in Soane’s treatment of walls. Internally, he liked to blur the boundaries of a room by opening it out into surrounding lobbies or spaces, often quite tiny, or by hollowing out alcoves and lining them with mirrors; externally, he discovered that he could reduce the impression of mass in a wall by decorating it with delicately incised lines or very slightly recessed panels, or by framing his doors or windows with one arch shallowly recessed within another. His stable block at Chelsea Hospital is decorated with a series of three large but very simple brick arches, each of which contains no fewer than three more arches of reducing size; the resulting façade shimmers and dissolves as with a Bridget Riley painting.

Even when (usually for reasons of the status of the building) he uses the conventional apparatus of the traditional architectural orders, he can give it a curious twist. The splendid Corinthian columns, for instance, which ring the outside of the Bank of England are backed and divided by rusticated walls, but supported on a plain stone plinth. Rustication is the accepted classical means of expressing weight and strength; Soane was reversing the traditional hierarchy and placing the visually heavier element above the lighter one.

Soane’s oeuvre was an enormous one, but it has suffered grievously. Virtually all his many government buildings have been destroyed, and so, except for a few fragments, has his Bank of England; most of his country houses have been destroyed or altered. Perhaps it was a prevision that his lonely and unique style would not be treated sympathetically by posterity that led him to secure the future of his own house by endowing it and its contents as a museum. The Soane Museum remains one of the most curious and interesting buildings in Europe. Within the compass of a moderate-sized London house, every room is different, but all are fused together by Soane’s genius and personality. It is a house full of surprises: sudden and unexpected vistas, a wonderful variety of roofs and ceilings, and a brilliant use of mirrors and of carefully contrived moves from light into dark and back into light again. Soane believed that light provided what he called the poetry of architecture; at the Soane Museum he used and savored it as lovingly as wine, varying it by his resourceful use of top lighting, by the bones of his architecture, and by his use of mirrors and tinted or decorative stained glass. Sadly, the original lighting effects have been adulterated at various times since his death by alterations to the glazing and the introduction of insensitively placed electric light.

Except in the sculpture gallery at the back, conventional classical detail is almost totally lacking in Soane’s house—perhaps a reflection of Soane’s personal taste. Classical columns appear appropriately enough in the gallery, which is mainly filled—filled indeed to bursting—with fragments or casts of classical sculpture and architecture, displayed on three different and interpenetrating levels in every variety of light, from brilliant light up by the roof to dramatically tenebrous gloom in the inner recesses of what Soane called the crypt.

Everywhere pictures, sculpture, bronzes, and ceramics are used as much to provide variety of texture as for their own sake. In some ways Soane designed the interior of his house like a landscape gardener designing a park, carefully calculating the contrasts between light and dark as if between woodland and open space, and using mirrors, pictures, and sculpture instead of water, foliage, and rocks.

There are undeniable connections between Soane’s work and the contemporary Picturesque movement; but to describe him as a Picturesque architect is almost as misleading as to describe him as a neoclassical one. He was unique, going his own way and exerting little more than a superficial influence on his contemporaries, basically because they did not understand what he was doing. If any relevant comparison can be made it is with his friend Turner, who was also concerned in his paintings with dissolving mass in and through light; who passed beyond the understanding of his contemporaries; and whose supreme originality may have been partly owing to the fact that he was the poor son of a barber and lacked the preconceptions of an educated man.

A comparison with Turner is made by David Watkin in “Soane and his Contemporaries,” one of the three essays in the Academy Editions John Soane. The book calls for a word of warning. Superficially it may appear to be a comprehensive account of Soane’s architecture, but in fact it is a scissors-and-paste job, made up of a brief general essay by John Summerson, condensed from his John Soane (a short monograph published in 1952); David Watkin’s essay, and an essay on the Dulwich Picture Gallery by G.-T. Mellinghoff; short notes on the Soane Museum and the Bank of England; and a list of Soane’s works condensed from the one in Howard Colvin’s Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600 to 1840. The book is still extremely desirable, not so much because of its text (although all three essays are worth reading) as because of its handsome and well-designed format and lavish reproduction of drawings by Soane or his assistants. Many of these are of great beauty; they include some sixty in color, six of them in the form of double-page pullouts. No other publication on Soane can offer anything comparable.

Nonetheless, the lack of a full-length monograph on Soane remains one of the large gaps in English architectural history. Sir John Summerson has written much and perceptively about him, but has never produced a comprehensive biography. Dorothy Stroud’s very readable Architecture of Sir John Soane (1961) does not pretend to be definitive. Pierre du Prey’s recently published John Soane: The Making of an Architect deals only, in great, perhaps excessive, detail, with his career up to 1784, when he was thirty-one.

To select this portion of Soane’s life was a brave choice, for the accepted judgment has long been that Soane’s architecture only became interesting after 1784. Three reasonable arguments can be set against this point of view: first, that anything to do with an architect of Soane’s caliber is of interest, second, that the early designs are by no means without quality, third, that the story of his early years provides the most fully documented account to survive of how an ambitious young architect in the later eighteenth century fought his way toward success. And indeed the story, as carefully pieced together by Professor du Prey, is full of interest. Apart from a few less creditable incidents, Soane’s energy, persistence, and thoroughness come through very strongly; in addition to his qualities as a designer, from the start he appears as a practical builder both conscientious and exceedingly competent. Especially valuable is the account of his visit to Italy, not so much because of the well-known story of his being taken up and dropped by the earl-bishop of Bristol, as because of its careful analysis of the circle of much less glamorous friends made by Soane in these years, and the account of how they provided the basis of his subsequent practice.

The fact remains that neither the many abortive designs for large or fanciful buildings made in his youth, nor the modest and relatively cheap ones that actually got built, give much foretaste of his later achievements. A sumptuous project for a gigantic triumphal bridge, all columns and domes, won him a traveling scholarship to Rome; competition entries for a large lunatic asylum and an even larger prison failed to win him recognition. The bridge, and related designs, are competent, handsome, but not especially interesting; they are what a jury or academy expected from clever young students of the time. The asylum and prison are much more impressive examples of radical as opposed to academic neoclassicism. The prison, in particular, is a superbly dramatic constellation of neoclassical bastilles, designed on a gigantic scale. But it has little to do with the later Soane. Nor has the much more modest development that was actually built in Southwark, interesting though it is as apparently the first example of semi-detached housing to be erected in London.

Only in a few gawky and rather disturbing little designs in his first publication, Designs in Architecture (1778), and in some of his modest country houses of the early 1780s, do hints of his maturity emerge. In the houses, especially, superficially neoclassical arrangements of simple geometric forms and fashionably “primitive” detail have somehow been infused by Soane with a nervy, reticent, insubstantial elegance that is neither simple nor primitive. Here one gets a taste of the transformations to come, transformations that were to be accompanied by the change from the doe-eyed, eager-to-please, on-the-make young man of the early portraits to the thin-faced, thin-skinned, painstaking, paranoiac, loving, and lovable genius of later years.

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