Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I will return to my obsession with toilets shortly (didn't get time to finish the next post)  In the interim, let's change the subject entirely.

My youngest son now lives in Limehouse.  July was my first time to visit him since he moved, and my first time to visit Limehouse for 30 years. In 1980, I stayed there for several weeks, living & working with friends who had conceived a project for a book called "Squatting: the real story".  We had all been involved in the squatting movement which blossomed forth in London during the 60s and 70s, part of a wider phenomenon of rebellious creativity that infected a whole generation of young people, from the Aldermaston marches to John & Yoko's bed-in.

I was credited as "Illustrator" of the Squatting Book and had a wonderful time generating all kinds of visual enhancements to the various chapters.  It's a wonderful experience to look back on, and I will ever be grateful for Nick Wates & Caroline Lwin for roping me in.  In another life I might have been a graphic artist, but here I am a BIM-crazy architect.

While visiting Tom, I was determined to visit St Anne's, a church by Nicholas Hawksmoor right next door to the converted Seaman's Mission that I stayed in with Nick & Caroline.  I was fortunate to choose a Sunday morning to walk down and take some photographs.  I caught the tail end of a service and was allowed to sneak inside for a few interior shots before they closed the doors.

Back home I slotted these pics into my database of British classical architecture (part of a larger archive that sits on my laptop and has been accumulating for about 15 years now)  I was motivated to spend a weekend re-structuring this section and it occurred to me that Hawksmoor's six London churches would make a very interesting topic for a "BIM study" using some of the techniques I developed while working on my Urban Design presentation for this year's Revit Technology Conference in Chicago.

Hawksmoor is an interesting character, something of an architect's architect, partly because of his willingness to challenge convention (he remains difficult to classify, standing slight apart from the mainstream) and partly because of his tendency to simplify, to strip away ornament and work with stark, geometric masses. 

If you wanted to be really adventurous, you might try to trace a sinuous strand linking Hawksmoor to Soane, via Voysey perhaps & Lubetkin to Foster & Rogers.  That would be a somewhat fanciful response to European accusations that English Architecture has always been tame, conservative and unadventurous. (A stupid accusation in the first place, History is not a competition)

So I made simple massing models of the 6 churches, using the scalable primitives that I had developed.  I had already modelled 2 London churches for my presentation.  (by Wren & Gibbs, representing the generation before & after Hawksmoor, both people he knew as colleagues.) so these provide useful comparisons.

The idea here is to develop buildings in simplified form as families.  In principle these can be taken as generic buildings and scaled up or down (depending on context) for use in Urban Design studies.  In this case we are no using the scaling facility, but it is handy to have lightweight models that can be set in context and/or lined up in a row and compared. 

We have services like Google Earth and Wikipedia these days, so it was easy to find reference information for the sites, old maps, photographs, plans.  I already had a book on Hawksmoor that I purchased several years ago.  The site contexts are also modelled in a highly simplified, abstract style.  I want to focus on fundamentals & I want to achieve my goals within a reasonable time frame.
I found this to be a really great way to get to grips with a really diverse collection of source material and form ideas about the historical period and geographical locations for these 6 churches.  I had to fight the natural tendency to model the context in too much detail.  It's important to find the right level of abstraction  in order to convey the general tone of a building in its setting. The locations are very different, and this has affected both the orientation and planning of the churches.

The churches result from a commission established in 1711, when Hawksmoor was 50 and a well established and respected architect.  Both Wren and Vanbrugh were on this commission.  Wren had employed Hawksmoor during his twenties and thirties, watched him grow from a promising teenager to a mature architect.   Vanbrugh had been collaborating with Hawksmoor throughout the previous decade on various Stately Home projects.  Not surprising that they chose him to lead an ambitious programme to build 50 churches.  (Far too ambitious.  Only 12 were built, half by Hawksmoor)
The churches were built in parallel, with the starting dates slightly staggered.  Roughly speaking they follow an East to West sequence which is a convenient way to organise my comments.  So we start with St Alphege, Greenwich, on a bend in the River opposite the Isle of Dogs.

This is the most traditional of the 6 designs.  It's tempting to imagine that he became progressively more adventurous as he went along, but that's pure speculation and there are also practical explanations for the different approaches.  In any case, he starts with a cruciform plan with a tower at the west end.  This tower is deliberately set away from the main mass with a small linking element.
The church is aligned just slightly off an East-West axis, probably a response to the site which is on a bend in the road.  In order to maintain the traditional orientation with the altar to the East, the church has to put it's back to the road.  As a result, the east façade is rather different from the other 5 churches, more like an entrance façade in fact, with a grandiose broken pediment and deeply recessed "venetian arch".

Greenwich was a small town, sandwiched between the busy dockyards at Deptford and the vast royal estates of Greenwich Park.  These estates contain an architectural gem by Inigo Jones, England's first, great classical architect.  The queen's house defines two grand axes which order the composition of the Greenwich Hospital designed by Wren, with significant contributions by Hawksmoor, who was therefore returning to familiar territory.  Wren was also the Astronomer Royal and designed the observatory on the hill behind the Queen's House, which is of course the setting out point for the zero meridian.

So here we have a resting place for old and injured sailors from the Royal Navy, a dockyard which built many famous ships for that navy as it rose to become the world's dominant sea power, and the origin point for the lines of longitude which were the key to long distance navigation.  The locksmith for this key was John Harrison, whose chronometers still reside in the observatory museum. The accuracy of these time pieces allowed ships to calculate their position with much greater precision.

20 years earlier, the battle of Beachy Head resulted in a shock defeat by France.  The hospital at Greenwich can be seen as part of the reaction to this as the King & Queen strove to rebuild the strength & prestige of the navy.  In order to do this they had to borrow large amounts of money which involved negotiating with Parliament and had two significant side effects.  Firstly parliament further strengthened it's position as a counterbalance to royal power, in contrast to the absolute monarch of catholic France.  Secondly it led directly to the creation of the Bank of England which was set up to manage this loan and played a key role as London rose to become the financial capital of a world dominated by long distance trade.

Greenwich lies opposite the Isle of Dogs.  From 1800 to 1960 this was the heart of Dockland, providing deep water anchorage for the sharp increase in shipping resulting from the Industrial Revolution.  In Hawksmoor's day, the East & West India Companies operated from wharves along the river edge further up stream towards the city.  These wharves had been spreading steadily eastwards and Limehouse represented the extreme limit of this expansion.

Here Hawksmoor had the benefit of a large churchyard and was able to orient his church exactly East-West with the West tower and entrance facing directly down a short side-street.  At Greenwich he had placed the transepts in the middle, as far back as he could reasonably place them.  The transepts act as side entrances, reasonably close to the street, and give direct access to the galleries.  In short he had a logical circulation strategy for a public meeting place.

At Limehouse the congregation approaches from the West and the transepts are brought right up to that end, transforming themselves to side buttresses for the tower.  They have a triple role: entrance, structural support, vertical circulation.

The vertical circulation at the back corners is played down, with two square turrets acting like symbolic tent pegs, to counteract the weight of the tower with its buttressing transepts. 

There is still a short group of river-side houses in Limehouse that date back to the 18th Century.  Narrow street includes "The Grapes" public house which is well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood and want to step back in time.  So that brings us back to where we started: St Anne's Limehouse and a wonderful nostalgic Sunday morning, part of my trip back home from RTC Chicago.

I think that's enough for one post.  We'll take a closer look at the other 4 churches next time.


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