ARCHITECTS today are a distinctive lot. They spend seven or eight years training for their chosen career, and the result is not simply a set of skills, but a cast of mind — and even, for some, an instantly recognisable look. So distinctive is this that, a few years back, a book came out entitled simply Why Do Architects Wear Black?
Three hundred years ago, things were rather different. Buildings were different, how they were built was different, and the people building them were different. Merely to say this, of course, is to say very little. Everything was obviously different in the 17th century. But, in this scholarly and lucid new book, the historian Matthew Walker shows how useful it might be to go beyond this superficial analysis and to think about how different things actually were.
At first sight, the answer seems self-evident. Key figures in the architectural world of the 17th and early 18th centuries, such as Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanbrugh, and John Evelyn, seem utterly unlike our modern conception of the architect.
Wren had no architectural training before he began to build. Vanbrugh suddenly switched from life as a playwright to a career as an architect, announcing his new vocation in the most spectacular way by designing that magnificent Baroque palace Castle Howard. As for Evelyn, now best known as a brilliant diarist of the period, remarkably enough he evidently considered himself an architect, even though he never once designed or built a single structure.
For most historians, this reflects the fact that there was no such thing as an architectural profession or — for that matter — any clear sense of what architecture itself might amount to. Yet, as Dr Walker elegantly establishes, such a conclusion needs revisiting. Far from being an era of amateurism or architectural confusion, the late 17th century was, in his words, “the period when the architect began to emerge as a major intellectual figure: as the collector and manipulator of forms of highly sought-after knowledge”.
To this end, he explores the questions posed by the contemporaries about who was fit to design buildings; the importance of books and travel as forms of architectural training; and the ways in which designers set about the process of design. Indeed, in his final chapter, he offers a brilliant and deeply researched new account of Wren’s whole design philosophy — one that will be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the subject.
All in all, he shows that any simplistic assumptions about difference will not do. However unlike they are to our modern architectural profession, it is clear that these were architects as we would now understand them. Can it only be a coincidence that in formal portraits Wren even wore black?
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Architects and Intellectual Culture in Post-Restoration England
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