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Terror and Magnificence


It’s no secret that Nicholas Hawksmoor is and has been on my Top Ten list of architects—for decades; probably since I was an undergraduate. His six churches for the 1710 Commission for Building Fifty New Churches may be the finest examples of Protestant British Baroque and worthy counterparts to Messrs Bernini and Borromini in the Catholic south. All six of the London churches were on the list for my first visit to London in 1971, and I have returned to many of them again and again—especially Christ Church, Spitalfields and St Mary Woolnoth.

Through the vigor of those buildings, Hawksmoor has entered contemporary British literature in works by novelist Peter Ackroyd and poet Iain Sinclair. Thirty years ago Ackroyd published a novel titled Hawksmoor about the occult activities of fictional 18th century architect named Dyer and the investigations of 20th century Scotland Yard detective Hawksmoor. Dyer commits crimes at each of the six construction sites (connected with the real Hawksmoor), while detective Hawksmoor investigates contemporary crimes at those same locations. In an alternating-chapter format popularized by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City, et al.), Ackroyd shifts between the English of the early 17th century and that of our own time. A sample of his dialogue invokes a heightened sense of time and place:

And so let us beginne; and, as the Fabrick takes its Shape in front of you, alwaies keep the Structure intirely in Mind as you inscribe it. First, you must measure out or cast the Area in as exact a Manner as can be, and then you must draw the Plot and make the Scale. I have imparted to you the Principles of Terrour and Magnificence, for these you must represent in the due placing of Parts and Ornaments as well as in the Proportion of the several Orders: you see, Walter, how I take my Pen? Ackroyd, Hawksmoor, 1985

For a scholarly architectural treatment of those six buildings, look for a copy of Nicholas Hawksmoor: London Churches by Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design.


The qualities of six Protestant churches from the years 1712-1731 have engaged historians, poets, and writers since my undergraduate years, when Kerry Downes may have initiated the juggernaut in 1970. Extricating the work of Hawksmoor from his close contemporaries and  associates Sir Christopher Wren (for whom Mr H was Clerk of the Works) and Sir John Vanbrugh (with whom H worked on Blenheim) has been the task of these past forty-five years, and that reassessment may not yet be complete. My love for these works—whether or not they were designed by Hawksmoor—confirms something about my own architectural inclinations: I am at heart a Mannerist.

1. a habitual gesture or way of speaking or behaving; an idiosyncrasy
“learning the great man’s speeches and studying his mannerisms”
2. excessive or self-conscious use of a distinctive style in art, literature, or music.
“he seemed deliberately to be stripping his art of mannerism”
Technically, Mannerism describes a brief period in architectural history between the High Renaissance and the Baroque. Though primarily seen in art, there are architectural examples by both Michelangelo, Romano, and Peruzzi. But its characteristics can be seen at various other moments in European and American architectural history. The mannerisms of Frank Furness, for example, [viz. the Pennsylvania Academy of Art] inspired fellow Philadelphian Robert Venturi. Likewise, Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik fits a pattern that drew me to his work in Ljubljana in 2006. But, while I confess a fascination with Mannerism’s idiosyncrasies, I cannot claim them in my own efforts.
All of which encourages me to re-explore what this might mean to Agincourt.

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