Christ Church Spitalfields from Brushfield St., 1990. (This and all photos on this page © David Secombe.)
Ever since they began to rise over London just over 300 years ago, the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor (1662–1736) have had an ambiguous – even paradoxical – relationship to the city that made them and which they have in turn remade. On the one hand, the churches of St Anne, Limehouse, Christ Church, Spitalfields and St George-in-the-East in the old parish of Stepney, St. Alfege in Greenwich, St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London and St George, Bloomsbury are inextricably bound up with the history of London. On the other, they stand apart, somehow belonging to a rather different time and place, almost as fragments of Ancient Rome transplanted into London.
St Alfege, Greenwich, 1988.
To understand Hawksmoor’s churches and their relationship to the city, one has to go back to the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666. Even as the fire still smouldered, Hawksmoor’s later master, Christopher Wren, was working up a plan for London’s rebuilding that would replace its narrow and irregular medieval streets with grand boulevards. Most importantly, and taking direct inspiration from what he had learned in Paris the year before, Wren’s plan would have imposed a clear spatial order and control on the dangerous and unruly metropolis.
Hawksmoor’s approach to city planning was different. Hawksmoor never created a plan for London in the way his master had done, but he did produce (unbuilt) designs for re-planning Oxford and Cambridge, and parts of London around St Paul’s Cathedral, Greenwich, and Westminster. The easiest way to understand how these would have worked is to look to contemporary landscape gardens: manufactured landscapes littered with classically-inspired temples and follies, structures that dominate the vistas and embody the estate owner’s authority.
St George-in-the-East, Wapping, 2010.
Similarly, in Hawksmoor’s idea of the city, spatial order and control extended not from the street layout, but from monumental buildings that would physically dominate their surroundings. In all Hawksmoor city plans we see a recurring strategy of clearing the areas around important buildings – both old and new – so that they might express their spatial dominion over the surrounding cityscape. What happened in between was of far less importance. It’s hard to imagine the effect of these unbuilt plans when described in the abstract, but to see their principles in action we only need look as far as Hawksmoor’s churches.
St Luke’s Old St. (Hawksmoor & John James), photographed before its 21st century restoration, 1988.
Even now, the areas around Hawksmoor’s three churches in the old parish of Stepney still retain the ‘edge-lands’ feel they must have had when they first grew up in the decades following the Great Fire. Today that energy is manifested in the clash of different cultures and economies as the City of London encroaches on East End communities. In the early eighteenth century the energy arose through the rise of dissenting religious groups, outside the orbit of central Anglican control, with all the social and political ramifications that that held. As a result, Hawksmoor’s churches were conceived from the off as outlying beacons of the city’s spiritual and political centre – monuments of state and Church authority in areas that had none.
Entrance to Bank tube station showing part of the crypt of St Mary Woolnoth, City of London, 1988.
All three of Hawksmoor’s Stepney churches are colossal structures, deliberately sited to be seen in the round, that dominate their environment by sheer scale. Not surprisingly, their overbearing size has played a part in their subsequent neglect. In a 1975 letter to The Times, the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddlestone, was at great pains ‘to make it clear that the state of disrepair of Christchurch, Spitalfields is in no sense due to the failure of the local Christian community, nor, in my opinion, to neglect by the authorities of the Church of England’. Such a building of ‘cathedral-like proportions’ was, he argued, an ‘appalling responsibility for the Church’.
In addition to their size, Hawksmoor was able to make his churches stand out by his choice of material: white Portland stone, as opposed to the red brick of the surrounding city. Hawksmoor’s churches appear as if fully formed from a single gigantic block of stone. There’s the sense that this is the form the stone wants to be – a testament to their design, the final and most enduring aspect of their differentiation from the surrounding city.
St Anne’s Limehouse, 2010.
Having risen up through Wren’s office in the 1680s and 90s, by the beginning of the eighteenth century Hawksmoor was arguably the best-trained architect Britain had ever seen. Classical architecture was his intellectual and aesthetic bedrock, but he was also fascinated by Gothic architecture and in particular its origins – as he saw them – in the churches of the early Christians of the near east. Hawksmoor’s genius was to bring all this learning to bear in creating a series of church designs rich in reference, resonance and allusion. The result was a series of buildings in which architecture was taken back to its very origins, with ideas and references built up in complex layers of masonry, imbuing these structures with the authority of the architectural past. This is architecture conceived through a sculptural sensibility to create buildings that speak to us but indirectly: through our senses and our emotions.
St George Bloomsbury, 2016.
There are few buildings in London that look back to the past while at the same time prefigure the future. While part of London’s history, Hawksmoor’s churches exist in the future too, yielding ever more secrets as the city changes around them.
… for The London Column. Owen Hopkins’s book From The Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor is published by Reaktion Books.
© Owen Hopkins. All photos © David Secombe.