Peter Ackroyd built his 1985 novel Hawksmoor on the reputation of the English Baroque architect [±1661–1736]. That Hawksmoor had been overcome by the shadows of far larger historical figures like Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh. We don’t have to ask where Wren is spending eternity; his burial in the crypt advises to “look about you” for his monument. The Vanbrugh vault in St. Stephen Walbrook’s churchyard is unmarked. Nicholas Hawksmoor is partly accountable for the reputations of both Wren and Vanbrugh, as their loyal but unsung assistant-collaborator — so unsung that his tomb at Shenleybury, Hertfordshire, is no longer a churchyard but has been deconsecrated as a private home.
Ackroyd’s contribution to Hawksmoor’s rehabilitation is an odd exception to the annals of art history: he fictionalizes the 18th century architect as a 20th century Scotland Yard detective and substitutes Nicholas Dyer as the occult designer of six London churches, the essence of the short-lived English Baroque. A visit to London without pilgrimage to Christ Church Spitalfields or St. Mary Woolnoth is a missed opportunity.
Architect Dyer and detective Hawksmoor across those two hundred and fifty years by seven crimes perpetrated by one and seven more investigated by the other. Gradually, they disappear into the wormhole that binds them together. Each pair of homicides occurs at one of those London churches. But wait, you say, there is one pair of homicides lacking an actual Hawksmoor church. And therein lies the link between story-telling and place-making, between narrative and design. Ackroyd’s skill evoking word pictures conjured in the mind of this designer, me, images of the fictional seventh church, Little St Hugh. On the night I finished the novel, I actually dreamt the church. Is that a credit to me or the author?
The finest fiction, historical and otherwise, rests with the author’s ability to generate powerful word-pictures, in much the same way, I believe, designers create places which encourage the making of moments, incidents in the narratives of our lives.