A Monumental Achievement
by James Stevens Curl (August 2021)
Among a great many nihilistic æsthetic disasters of architectural Modernism has been the severance of ornament from buildings: for the first time in the history of the world, any ‘ornament,’ entirely unrelated to the ‘architecture,’ was arbitrarily stuck on to finished buildings as a ludicrous nod to ‘art.’ One of the crassest examples survives on the narrow Shaftesbury Square end of the four-storey former Ulster Bank, 136-142 Great Victoria Street, Belfast, designed by Tony Houston (1920-2002), a dreary piece of early-1960s Modernism. Fixed to the blank, non-structural, Portland Stone panel facing the Square are two armless cast-metal figures, one set horizonally, and the other at 45 degrees to the vertical: fatuously claimed by their creator, Elisabeth Jean Frink (1930-93), to be ‘men in flight.’ they were plonked on to the building, and were, almost inevitably, named ‘Draft’ and ‘Overdraft’ by mordant Belfast wits. Apparently the costs were concealed in the Bill of Quantities as ‘provisional sum for Ironmongery.’ which says it all. In buildings of all periods of history, apart from when the fundamentalist cult of modernism was universally embraced, ornament was totally integrated with the architecture (think of Classicism or Gothic for a start): that, obviously, is no longer the case.
South-Africa-born Craig Hamilton, who, since 1995, has lived and worked at Coed Mawr, near the border between England and Wales, has demonstrated, again and again, the infinite variety possible when working with the rich, adaptable, and civilised architectural language of Classicism, not least when employing sculpture, embellishments, ornament, finely-wrought detailing, and natural materials, to create buildings full of deep meaning while avoiding copyism and arid pedantry. He has often collaborated with the Scots sculptor of genius, Alexander Stoddart, whose works display a deep understanding of culture, allusions, history, aesthetic depth, Classical precedents, and profound learning: his creations sing of beauty (a word eschewed by Modernists), intelligence, and much else light-years away from the shallowness of so-called ‘conceptual’ art as promoted by art-establishment apparatchiks who have been deeply hostile to everything for which Stoddart stands. Indeed, neither Hamilton nor Stoddart is concerned with concepts at all: as highly skilled professionals with principles, they are deeply involved with percepts, enchanting, graceful, heavenly, and kind.
Structures associated with death, such as mausolea, can give gifted, sensitive, real architects great scope to create exquisite and wonderful buildings in which sculpture and architecture are inextricably melded, each enhancing the other, forming a coherent whole, without any considerations of changes of use impinging on creativity. This marvellous book includes descriptions and illustrations of two of Hamilton’s mausolea, both in London cemeteries established in the 1830s, and both with apposite sculpture by Stoddart perfectly integrated with the architecture.
One mausoleum (2012-13) is set in its own plot surrounded by a yew hedge: that funerary garden (echoes of the Via Appia Antica, Rome) is entered through iron gates hung from two massive stone piers, each carved with panels depicting the ancient Grecian receptacle (lekythos) holding the liquid used to anoint the dead. The building itself, of very accurately cut stone with the finest of joints, is a masterpiece of Classical reticence, with minimal mouldings. In a recess opposite the entrance-gates is a relief by Stoddart showing two female attendants on the Dead draping a tall vase positioned off-centre: one of the figures holds a thymiaterion, a tall incense-burner, often associated with cemeteries and funerals in Antiquity (below, Left). On the far side of the mausoleum are bronze gates leading to the sepulchre’s interior: these have 8 panels by Stoddart, playfully alluding to the vital activities of existence and looking back to the precedents of Antique sarcophagi decorated with scenes of celebration in which putti play various parts. Gazing inwards is a female bronze figure carrying a lantern in one hand and the sacred flower of yellow Elysian meads, the asphodel, in the other: with her back towards the garden, she demonstrates her interest in the dead, so she is Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory, one of the Titanides, daughter of Uranus and Gæa (below, Right). There are intelligent allusions throughout this and other great works by Hamilton.
It is unusual that Woodman, whose architectural education and career as a journalist have been conventionally Modernist, has taken such an interest in Hamilton’s work, and indeed written rather sympathetically about it in the volume under review, providing what are, on the whole, reasonably perceptive commentaries. However, the limitations of his Modernist background are sometimes painfully obvious: the lunettes on all four sides of the mausoleum’s attic storey are not ‘Diocletian windows’; bodies are not ‘interned’, as though they were going to be jailed, but are deposited in mausolea; the recesses in which corpses are placed in such buildings are not ‘catacombs’ but loculi; he seems out of his depth with terms such as in antis; and so on and so forth, which is a great pity, as one gets the impression that his heart is moving to the right place.
The other mausoleum (2014-17) is sited in St James’s Cemetery, Highgate, and this time the precedents of works by early twentieth-century architects on both sides of the Atlantic are clear (below, Left). Stoddart was responsible for the two bronze reliefs of vigorously modelled Fortitude and Faith on either side of the interior as well as for the beckoning angel standing sentinel in the apsidal end. In Stoddart’s work here can be detected infuences from the early bronze Icarus figure (1884) by Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934), and even from the creations of Lord Leighton (1830-96), which must cause problems for certain blinkered commentators.
Three glorious chapels are also included in this volume: that of St Rita of Cascia (2005-6) in the Scottish Borders, with an interior indebted to All Hallows, London Wall (1765-7), by George Dance the Younger (1741-1825); Christ the Redeemer, Culham Court (Berkshire), of 2008-15, with quirkily inventive Mannerist detailing by Hamilton, paraphrasing some of the sixteenth-century Florentine motifs employed by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), and sculpture by Stoddart strongly influenced by the work of Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844); and Our Lady at Williamstrip (Gloucestershire), of 2013-17, a stunning work, very tightly disciplined and exquisitely detailed (above, Right). Although the Williamstrip Bath House (Gloucs.) of 2010-12 is a very different building-type, the architecture is as geometrically tightly controlled as in the other works featured.
Influences on Hamilton are many, and his designs gain from his sound source-material, including works by Charles Robert Cockerell (1788-1863), Dance the Younger, the Slovenian genius, Joze Plecnik (1872-1957), Charles Henry Holden (1875-1960), John James Burnet (1857-1938), Lionel Godfrey Pearson (1879-1953), Harold Van Buren Magonigle (1867-1935), Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944), and other architects steeped in skills no Modernist ever bothered to acquire. Both Hamilton and Stoddart are men of immense learning and culture, commanding skills that have been almost bullied out of existence: neither of them subscribes to the current iconophobia; both appreciate and can create that which connects with the numinous mysterium tremendum; and in times when the cultural Occident has almost been battered to extinction, and knowledge and study of it forbidden by those who insist on and indulge in Groupthink rather than mature individual reflection, it is a glimmer of hope that the sacredness of creative endeavour survives in such artists capable of making buildings that, Laus Deo, are in a manner refreshingly antipathetic to our barren, spiritually empty, creepily dishonest times.
This is a truly beautiful piece of book-making, superbly printed on fine paper, with clear reproductions of Hamilton’s exquisite drawings (some if his details are truly delightful), with magnificent photographs, the whole handsomely bound. Stoddart’s short, masterly, and brilliant Afterword is both funny and hits the nail square-on.
Woodman’s text, however, should have been carefully edited.
An earlier version of this review, commissioned by the Church Monuments Society, appeared in Church Monuments 35 (2020), pp. 210-212. Permission by the Society to re-use some of this material is gratefully acknowledged.
Table of Contents
Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast
Lou the cheap beer sommelier
It's great to see some actual beauty built into a modern building! Having read Dr. Curl's exceptional book about the craptastic nature of modern architecture and the frauds who taught it and the criminally incompetent architects who create it (Corbusier, Gropius, Geary, etc.) and call their structural insults to humans "modernist" and "deconstructivist" and "brutalism" among other colorful descriptors, and the tasteless fools who give them enormous fees and then awards for their stupid dysfunctional building projects it's a real breath of fresh air to read of architects who do not suck. Indulged and indulgent frauds like Geary are actually cruel people-they create hideous monstrosities that do not fit in the landscape, do not fit in the culture of the humans who reside on the landscape and that offend the sensibilities of anyone with the misfortune of passing by or those great unfortunates who have to live and work in these grotesque structures. The world of nature is beautiful but cruel as hell, and decent people with some sense of beauty and involvement in the world want to see buildings that are not ugly and offensive or outright thoughtless, functionally failed, and cruel. This notion that the great artists of the world - and this includes highly paid and world renowned fake architects - are rewarded for creating ugliness because ornament and beauty are "bad" is simply sick. I strongly recommend Dr. Curl's book "Making Dystopia" to anybody who cares about architecture and beauty and the crooks who try to ruin both. Great to see this historian of, analyst of, and exceptional appreciator of architectural failures and excellence writing in this publication! And what can the response be when the failed architect is challenged by a thoughtful human in this way: "Why would you create such an ugly building?" The only answer can be: "You just don't understand architecture." But the truth is we sure do understand architecture and know crapola when we see it. Dr. Curl gets it, too. And that's a great thing for all of us readers who appreciate beauty and dislike indulged ugliness in the world. Harumph!!
Big Daddy Mac
Enjoyed this article very much. I also liked Lou's comments, but holy wall of text, Batman.
The problem I have with people who bewail modern architecture is that too many want to return to the "classical" style, for aesthetic/ornamental reasons, which personally makes me want to puke. The "ornaments" are the same old crap: columns which hold up nothing and the triangle on top (forgot the name of it). My bank a year ago decided to make the front more ornamental. It is a rectangular, flat surfaced building. They put a free standing triangle on top of the entrance. Seen from the side, it looks ridiculous, like one of those movie building props that when you look around the corner, there is no building, just empty space.