The Architecture of Sir John Soane

The Architecture of Sir John Soane

The Architecture of Sir John Soane

The Architecture of Sir John Soane

Excerpt

If Soane is recognised as one of the greatest of English architects it is not because his work epitomises an age, as did Wren's and Adam's before his time, or that of Norman Shaw's a hundred years later. Even to assign him to a particular century is difficult. Soane belongs as much to the outgoing eighteenth century as the leading French innovator of the period, Ledoux, who executed nothing after 1789. To the early decades of the nineteenth century he contributed as much as Schinkel, whose architectural career began only after 1815. To mention at once two of the greatest continental architects among Soane's near contemporaries is to put one's finger on his rather special position in English architecture. Soufflot may have modelled the dome of the Paris Pantheon on Wren's St. Paul's: Adam (less certainly) may have inspired some aspects of the style Louis XVI; and Shaw, thanks to Muthesius, notably influenced twentieth-century house planning and design in Germany as also, of course, in America. Yet the significance of these men's works is essentially English. One speaks of the 'Age of Wren' or the 'Age of Adam'--if not perhaps of the 'Age of Shaw'--without worrying too much whether the first was but a local aspect of the international Baroque and the other of the international Neo-Classicism that followed. Soane, however, is less significant in the English than in the international scene. It is more proper, indeed, to evaluate his work in relation to Ledoux's and Schinkel's, architects who were perhaps his equals in stature--or for that matter the work of C. F. Hansen and B. H. Latrobe, who were not--than to the production of a compatriot such as John Nash, whose achievement, though notable, is almost incommensurable in intrinsic quality with Soane's.

There are several ways in which Soane seems un-English. Although his private domestic practice was considerable, his major employment was official and his major buildings monumental. (In that respect, of course, there are parallels with the œuvre of Wren, who designed far fewer houses than he, but only contrast with the practice of Adam or Shaw.) His, also, was a highly professionalised talent, with nothing of the amateur about his basic approach or his way of working. Not merely because he was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy is it just to consider him an academic figure; yet his real 'academy' was not the Royal one but his own, as documented for us still, quite tangibly, in the contents of his house and museum, and, also by what we know of the training he gave his assistants. (As with Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, the sad irony is that hardly any succession at all followed from this Soanic academy.)

For these reasons and others related to them, Soane has rarely seemed to the English as important a figure as he does to foreigners. The latter do not see his work as merely a quaint cul-de-sac well off the main line of English architectural development between the day of Adam and the day of Pugin, but rather recognise in him one of the greatest English figures in the . . .

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