by Roderick Conway Morris

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John Soane Museum, London
The Dulwich Picture Gallery as built in 1812-13 by Joseph Michael Gandy

Soane's Architecture of Romance

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 10 June 2000


'My unfortunate attachment to Architecture is as difficult to be extinguished as a passion for play in the mind of a professed gambler!' wrote John Soane in 1810.

Born in 1753, the son of an English rural bricklayer, Soane, already dreaming of a brilliant career as a designer of buildings, had at the age of 13 added an 'e' to the end of his family name to give it a vaguely French touch of class.

He died in 1837 internationally recognized, a wealthy philanthropist, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, knighted by the king, and intimate with the great and the good.

But although his singleminded addiction to his calling paid handsome dividends during his lifetime, the posthumous fortunes of his buildings were startlingly unlucky. Most of his major institutional projects in the capital, from the Colonial Office to the Privy Council Chamber and the New Law Courts, were subsequently demolished.

Most disastrously, his celebrated radical remodeling of the Bank of England, was swept away by the wrecking crews in the 1920s, while other buildings were destroyed in the Blitz, or knocked down even more recently with breathtaking disregard for their significance.

And yet Soane managed to keep both his name and his architectural ideas alive - above all by leaving to the nation as a permanent museum his remarkable studio-house at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, with its collections of papers, books, drawings, paintings and antiquities and a substantial endowment for its upkeep.

Italy, which Soane visited after winning a traveling scholarship from the Royal Academy in his early twenties, was the making of the young architect. For not only did he find here the fundamental forms out of which he composed his own individual style, but also his first patrons from among the English grand tourists he encountered on his travels. Of the five fellow countrymen he journeyed with on a single trip to Sicily, for example, four later became his clients.

Consequently, Italy in general and Palladio's Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, home of the International Center for Architectural Studies, in particular, provide a revealing setting for the exhibition 'John Soane: Architect' which continues until Aug. 20. The exhibition will travel to Paris, Montreal and Madrid.

Soane was a fervent admirer of classical architecture, but not afraid to develop an idiosyncratic interpretation of its elements. He was decidedly not a Palladian, sometimes vocally so, rejecting this master's serene classicism in favor of an altogether more quirky and romantic style, his own buildings being in many respects a reaction against Palladio's brand of neoclassicism.

Unlike Palladio, Soane was not seeking to produce an effect of measured balance and harmony, but mystery, wonder and emotional impact. A friend of Turner and Coleridge, Soane, too, in his own way 'dared to be positively original,' as a contemporary observed shortly after his death.

With so many of Soane's important buildings lost, it would be impossible to appreciate the 'succession of fanciful effects' which for Soane constituted 'the poetry of Architecture,' but for the amazingly rich documentation of these buildings that survives in the very structure of the Lincoln's Inn Fields house, its collections and archives. And the loan of 250 pieces from Sir John Soane's Museum make this show an unusually vivid and accessible experience for an architectural exhibition.

Key among these works are the stupendous paintings by the artist and architect Joseph Michael Gandy, who worked with Soane from 1800 onwards. Gandy's broodingly romantic images of Soane's buildings, with their 'chiaroscuro' backdrops of shifting clouds and piercing shafts of sunlight illuminating parts of facades or penetrating interiors through roof-lanterns and skylights, perfectly capture Soane's ceaseless striving to harness the elusive mysteries of light and shade for dramatic effect.

Indeed, as we follow through the procession of Gandy's renderings of Soane's buildings over the years, it becomes more and more plausible that they in turn became a source of inspiration to Soane to push some of his experimental techniques to the limits.

Not that Soane, for all his romantic instincts, ever lost his grip on practicality and utility when building. Having begun life in the trade as a boy humping bricks for his older brother and worked his way up, he had an intimate knowledge of every stage in construction, and no detail, however small, was unworthy of his attention.

Soane was also a keen innovator, investigating the use of iron to provide supporting frames, testing new man-made materials and promoting novel comforts, such as indoor bathrooms.

By assuring the continued, unified existence of his own house and archives, Soane left a compact compendium of his style and techniques, which other architects have been drawing on ever since. In fact, as time has gone on, more and more modern practitioners have benefited from his insights, including architects as diverse as the American Philip Johnson, Arata Isozaki of Japan and Richard MacCormac of Britain.

Another prominent admirer of Soane is the Spanish architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg, whose recent work is the subject of a small companion exhibition at Palazzo Barbaran, 'Echoes of Soane.'

One of Baldeweg's most arresting tributes to Soane has been to take his trademark, canopy-like 'suspended dome,' as employed in the charming small Breakfast Room at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and scale it up for his Congress Hall at Salamanca - creating a cupola that is the size of that of the Pantheon in Rome and weighs 1,500 tons.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023