A Review by Michael Webb
A masterpiece of design and content, Nicholas Hawksmoor London Churches grew out of an exhibition of Hélène Binet‘s black and white photographs at the 2012 Venice Biennale. These capture the mystery and majesty of seven churches, created three centuries ago. In his lifetime (1661-1736) Nicholas Hawksmoor was overshadowed by Christopher Wren, and the theatricality of his varied work soon went out of fashion. Mohsen Mostafavi, a professor at the Harvard GSD, explains how he was rediscovered in recent decades and recognized as an architect of extraordinary originality and power.
In the early 18th century, Hawsksmoor was entrusted with the building of eight singular churches, which would serve as markers on the London skyline, while symbolizing the authority of the Church of England as an arm of the political establishment. All but one survived the Blitz, and have acquired landmark status. Here, and in new scale drawings, one can appreciate Hawsksmoor’s mastery of scale and detail, and the way he assembled disparate elements into a satisfying whole. Binet’s images show the buildings from afar and in tight close-up; from the street, the nave, and the air, revealing elements and perspectives that elude most visitors.
A personal favorite is St Anne’s, Limehouse, with its fanciful crown, tightly framed by a narrow cul de sac of 18th-century houses. Driving around London’s East End one day, I chanced on this jewel glowing in the late-afternoon sun, and marveled at the survival of such beauty in the midst of a neighborhood that was twice devastated, by the Luftwaffe and misguided planners. These images should inspire every architect, no matter how remote they seem from the language of today. And they expose the shallow, derivative character of today’s “classical” architecture. In contrast to these feeble attempts to mimic the past, Hawksmoor reinvented antiquity to create a bold new form of expression.
Nicholas Hawksmoor London Churches. Essay by Mohsen Mostafavi. Photography by Hélène Binet. Lars Muller Publishers, $50