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Drawing together material from the 2012 Venice Biennale, a new study of Hawksmoor’s churches examines their compelling individuality

It is rumoured that there are satanic and pagan symbols embedded within the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s many London churches – and that far from being in praise of God, their foundations are built over child sacrifices and their placement around the city draws together powerful forces into the shape of a pentagram.

These apocryphal tales are of course the stuff of fiction, whipped up for Peter Ackroyd’s dark and masterful narration in Hawksmoor, ‘a book that did‘much to help articulate the architectural qualities and enhance the reputation of the real Hawksmoor’, as Mohsen Mostafavi notes in his introduction. The fictional, occultist Hawksmoor describes his intent as being to inspire ‘Terror’ and ‘Magnificence’ in the beholder, which is nonetheless an accurate description of the Baroque architecture itself. Hawksmoor’s churches, with their strangely scaled elements, monumental spires and funereal ornaments, impress upon the viewer ‘awe and bewilderment’.

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Hélène Binet’s black and white photography captures the sombre nature of Hawksmoor’s London churches

Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, Christopher Wren (then just 34) had been charged with the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral and more than 50 parish churches. Meanwhile, Wren’s rival Robert Hooke was working on a Building Act intended to develop a new typology of housing to replace the flammable thatch and wood Jacobean dwellings. What Hooke proposed was the brick terrace row typology, standardised and homogenised into four ‘classes’ to suit different sites and social standings. The model was so successful that even today more than 93 per cent of London’s plots still conform to its rules.

By 1711, Wren, now aged 79, was concerned that the rapid urban expansion facilitated by Hooke’s Act had made the city conceptually illegible. To rectify this, he enlisted Baroque architect John Vanbrugh (perhaps best known for Blenheim Palace) to develop a strategy for monumentalising London’s new urban wastelands. What they proposed was a colossal church-building scheme, to give a coherent form to the city and unite it under one architectural style. Carefully sited, and intended to be seen from a great distance, it was Nicholas Hawksmoor who was then commissioned to survey and design these religious structures, of which about a dozen were executed.

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The book’s uniform presentation of each church is key to understanding them as a totality, as well as individual elements in a larger, city-wide plan

A key aspect to understanding Hawksmoor’s work is therefore the task of comparing and contrasting the whole and the part – determining the interrelationship, as well as the uniqueness of each church. For this, the book’s uniform presentation of each case study is helpful. Hawksmoor seems to have treated his interiors rather consistently, in a reduced, almost puritanical way. There is often just a single interior room, modestly arranged and uncontroversial in its form. By contrast, he used the plan and the subtle conditions of each site to compose architectural elements into quite astonishing variations. A critical design feature was the spire, as an urban marker in some ways the whole reason for the project, and Hawksmoor is extremely inventive in its articulation. At times incorporated into the plan, at times almost freestanding structures in their own right, the spires range from delicate fluted obelisks (St John Horsleydown) to squat, sturdy reproductions of the Mausoleum at Rhodes (St George’s).

Much of the material was first exhibited at the 2012 Venice Biennale, where I thought at the time it would make an excellent book. This is indeed the case – each of the eight churches is presented in the same way, with finely drawn plans and elevations, counterpoised by the stark and compelling monochrome photographs of Hélène Binet. This establishes a powerful relationship between on the one hand architectural precision and, on the other, the sober, sombre reality of the churches. Mostafavi’s introduction is engaging and accessible, revealing both the modus operandi of an astonishing architect as well as contextualising that work within the history of the invention of the city.