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matthew walker, Architects & Intellectual Culture in Post-Restoration England

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 227 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-874635-5
Marie-Madeleine Martinet
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WALKER, MATTHEW. – Architects & Intellectual Culture in Post-Restoration England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 227 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-874635-5

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1The book discusses the interaction between architects’ classical culture and their practice in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, in different forms: practising, collecting, discovering, inventing architecture.

2The first chapter, “Practising Architecture,” defines the rise of gentlemen architects, by comparison with master masons on the one hand and classical scholars on the other, as a context – though the term of “profession” is perhaps too precise for those days. Those who combined such talents were “architects ingenio” (unfortunately the phrase is sometimes shortened to the second term “ingenio,” which in Latin grammatically hangs in the air). The intellectual milieu is defined in a detailed account of Evelyn’s works on architecture and of the Royal Society. The association between theory and practice is apparent in the phrase where Evelyn says that institutions meant for the education of architects should have ‘books instruments plots types and models’ – both books and tools of the trade.

3The next chapter, “Collecting Architecture,” suggests that though the remaining evidence is scanty, architects may have had a variety of sources such as models and coins. A difficulty in the sources available to architects is, for treatises on architecture in translation, the problem of obtaining the original plates or of reproducing them, for which specialist engravers had to be found. Another question concerning the importance of the dissemination of sources is that of prints after architect’s designs, for which architects such as Wren obtained an exclusive licence.

4Among the buildings discussed, the focus on the ideal representation of buildings, rather than factual accuracy, is shown in the comments on Hooke’s engraving of the College of Physicians, which is magnified as an isolated building instead of being shown in a cramped street, as it is in reality. The interplay between project and reality is also shown in the representation of St Paul’s, sometimes shown as finished in engravings predating the completion of the building. An interesting quotation tells us that some collections contained images in “proper colours” and on strong paper.

5The chapter on “Discovering Architecture” demonstrates that architects’ culture was also based on their personal examination of earlier buildings, such as the York minster. Texts reveal their interest in late Roman architecture – the transition between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, which was to become a model of ancient architecture; and some texts also reveal that they had an experimental approach, doing measurements or calculations, and commenting on the reuse of materials. The visual conventions for travel accounts, especially distant places such as Persepolis, are of interest: some of them are in panoramic vision; the texts emphasise the sense of depth in the perception of ancient columns and motifs. The historical perception is apparent in accounts of the Acropolis, where the Parthenon is mixed with Frankish and Ottoman buildings, and in accounts of the Doric order, where the original form without base is discovered as a surprise; Italian vocabulary is used, suggesting the sources of the technical references.

6In the chapter “Inventing Architecture,” the reader is also introduced to the architects’ perception of space in quotations from Wren’s letters, in which he discusses the relation between the inside and the outside of a building, interestingly concerning the library of Trinity College, Cambridge – a famous example of a skilful combination of different schemes for the exterior and the interior –, and between the plans and the elevation (“orthography”). The quotations from Hooke’s letters showing the complementarity between text, drawing and model are significant.

7An interesting case study of the adaptation of ancient models to modern requirements due to the urban environment is the passage about Roger North’s gateway to the Middle Temple: North explains that he had to make the building as high as the neighbouring houses, but in the restricted width available, which did not correspond to the classical proportions between height and width if he has built a one storey façade, so that he divided the elongated space into two by placing a piano nobile of classical proportions on a pedestal to reach the desired height. He also justifies making the entrances of the pedestal with the flat one in the middle and the arches on the sides, contrary to practice, and he discusses his use of the depth of the stones, and the combination of brick and stone.

8We are also given examples of architects’ views on “ordinatio-dispositio” and on the orders, on Wren’s opticks, and on Desgodetz’s measures and ornaments on columns and cornices.

9In addition to the main argument, which is itself of interest, the book contains a wealth of case studies on numerous topics related to architecture, sometimes from lesser known texts such as letters, which make us share the Restoration architects’ interests and ways of solving problems, of perceiving space and light, in their own words and, as it were, through their own eyes.

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Marie-Madeleine Martinet, « matthew walker, Architects & Intellectual Culture in Post-Restoration England », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 76 | 2019, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2019, consulté le 27 janvier 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/1718/4047

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Marie-Madeleine Martinet

Sorbonne Université

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