Creativity and Constraint


A recent return trip to one of my favourite buildings in London set me thinking about the wide spectrum of variables that can influence or limit the design and construction of architecture. I first visited St.Mary Woolnoth church during my student days, and have been back many times to enjoy the tranquillity of its evocative interior, and to try and fathom the surprising intricacies of its seemingly simple geometry. 

Hawksmoor’s Queen Anne Churches will need little introduction to most of the people who will read this blog; 6 new edifices designed and constructed following Parliament’s 1711 ‘Act for building fifty new churches in the cities of London and Westminster’, which are now amongst the UK’s finest surviving examples of the English Baroque. I have visited all 6, and the more I see of Hawksmoor’s wider works, the more intrigued I become by the inventive idiosyncrasies of St.Mary.

A quick summary:

1. Site.  When design began in the early 18thC the site was amongst London’s densest inhabited areas, setting it apart from the solutions appropriate to the more open aspects afforded for those churches further East (even Christchurch managed to carve out a decent plot in the warren of Spitalfields). When built the site was only open to Lombard Street to the north, with a tight oblique view of the West front, predating as it did the creation of King William Street as we know it today by a century. 

2. Tower.  Hawksmoor’s notes from the period illustrate his reluctant need to lower the height of the tower to reflect the limited footprint the site afforded; a steeple was altogether out of the question. The slim plot to the west of the nave was better suited to a pair of towers, and this is the solution pursued by Hawksmoor. Much has been written on the quirks of this astonishing tower by others and suffice to say it probably merits another entire blog post, but it is largely agreed that the tower’s most striking features are a necessity of the tight and limited site. For example the proximity of the pedestrian in the City’s narrow streets determined the need to exaggerate the articulation at road level, the result of which is the monumental rustication that extends up to the full height of the adjacent nave aisle up to cornice level. 

3. Elevations.  Once again, the shallow depth from which the elevation could be viewed was met with forceful over-compensation. Facing north and surrounded by tall buildings, the unfenestrated Lombard Street elevation is instead surrendered to 3 vast rusticated aedicular niches. There is no other facade quite like it in London. 

4. Form.  The challenge of lighting a nave without windows was met with the show-piece of the interior; a clerestory lantern supported by 12 Corinthian columns, defining a geometrically pure ‘cube within a cube’ single cell centrally planned nave. 

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By no means exhaustive, this short list highlights the more readily obvious originalities of Hawksmoor’s design at St.Mary, and how each one grew from a tangled knot of difficult existing conditions. These constraints then are the kernel of St.Mary’s ingenuity, and mark it out as the peculiarity of the 6 contemporary designs. 

What this tiny building shows us is that Hawksmoor embraced the constraints of his site and let them feed the creativity of his response. Conserving historic architecture, creating new architecture in significant settings, or reusing architecture built for a different purpose, are all very rigorous challenges fraught with constraints; be they technical, structural, philosophical or even ethical. As a practice we find the resolution of these overlapping constraints, and in particular the negotiation of numerous often conflicting or incompatible layers of narrative, one of the most enriching and satisfying challenges of the work we do.

The idea that a site might be too constrained or difficult to develop into a graceful architecture was fundamentally disproved by Hawksmoor at St.Mary Woolnoth, and it is a lesson we continue to draw a great deal of inspiration from as we face the challenges of practice today.