viernes, 11 de marzo de 2011

British Architecture: Antiquarian Trends

Among many examples, St George, Bloomsbury, a church in the heart of London, embodies a curious and consistent trait in the treatment of classical architecture in Britain, that of a special antiquarian interest.

In contrast to French architecture, the British interest in classicism often sought to recreate fragments of the ancient world in order to transplant these on to British soil, as opposed to using the classical idiom to produce a modern and nationally conscious style of architecture.

St George, for instance, greets the visitor with a grave Roman portico, which is said to be based on the Jupiter temple at Baalbek in Lebanon. The statement is wilfully archaic, in contrast to much of baroque architecture, which was then current in Europe. The tower, on the other hand, is capped by an odd novelty, of which there are no known counterparts. This impression, however, misleads the intent of the architect, since the model can be identified as the mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The interior is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, including the cubic handling of space and the unorthodox orientation of the nave. These are both features following the relatively idiosyncratic style of the architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and may have been inspired by freemasonic ideas.
The interior, however, does not necessarily deflect from the archaeological theme. Little could be known with great certainty of Roman interiors in early 18th century Britain and the cool classical and lofty hall, which Hawksmoor produced, comes off as a decent speculative effort.

The interior, incidentally, is arguably also more successful than the exterior, as the latter is undermined by the indifferent position the church enjoys within the modern city-fabric. 

Similar antiquarian trends can also be found in the work of Britain’s first truly classical architect, Inigo Jones.  The portico of the church, St. Pauls at Convent Garden, might have no counterpart in the ancient world, but it is nonetheless a faithful study of what the Roman architect Vitruvius described as the correct use of the Tuscan order. 

Indeed, what is striking by much of the Palladio-inspired work in Britain, a source of inspiration that was so pervasive in the 18th century it lent its name to the dominant style, is that British architects for the most part ignored the mannerist inventions of the Italian architect. Instead, they looked to his literary works for clues to a historically correct classical style.

In so doing, they also copied some of Palladio’s false assumptions, that Romans would have tacked a temple front to a private villa for instance. Italian architects had since the beginning of the renaissance sought to replicate ancient architecture, but had either failed to do this correctly, in an archeologically accurate sense, or purposefully used classical formulae in subtly new ways.

New solutions were warranted for the most part by the simple fact that modern buildings, such as churches, villas and palaces are of a different order than classical temples. They have different rules for the treatment of interior space and are built on different structural principles. Italian architects, therefore, tended to transform the classical language into new usage, as when needed.

British architects were not unaware of these challenges, or not always, but were early on the most determined to overcome necessary deviations from true ancient models. Brits, therefore, were the first to use the classical portico as a facade for churches. As the famous example of James Gibbs and St Martin’s in the fields, this led to some curious combinations of ancient temple portico and the demand for a church to have a steeple.

The irony is that the British obsession with an historically correct use of classical principles eventually rubbed off on the rest of Europe. It was particularly pronounced in 19th century Germany and it was also the direction in which French architecture had tended towards throughout the preceding century. 

To what degree these trends owed to British architecture is of some dispute. What is certain, however, is that, as with the parliamentarian system, the British succeeded in being at the forefront, by virtue of rather than despite of, being the most doggedly conservative of the bunch.

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