Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Detail of the tower of 'Greek' Thomson's St Vincent Street Church in Glasgow. (Copyright -  David Winpenny)
Detail of the tower of 'Greek' Thomson's St Vincent Street Church in Glasgow. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

For anyone interested in architecture, there are several important anniversaries of architects’ births and deaths coming up this year.

If we take them in chronological order, we must first note the 350th anniversary of the death of Francesco Borromini. Despite his Italian name, Borromini was born in Switzerland, and trained under his stonemason father before moving first to Milan and then to Rome, where he studied architecture with a distant relative, Carlo Maderno, who was then chief architect at St Peter’s Basilica.

The King's Library at the British Museum, designed by Sir Robert Smirke. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The King's Library at the British Museum, designed by Sir Robert Smirke. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Borromini developed Maderno’s style into a full, idiosyncratic Baroque, which won him many commissions – despite his short temper and bouts of depression, which eventually led to his suicide in on 2 August 1667. His work was mainly in Rome, and included several churches, including the Church of St Agnese in the Piazza Navona, which influenced English Baroque architects like Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor.

Next on the list comes 1717 – 300 years ago. Our first candidate for recall is a man who was only incidentally – though quite influentially – an architect. He was Horace Walpole, born on 24 September 1717 and son of the first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole.

Horace Walpole was famous as an historian, a wit and a writer. His most famous literary work is the Gothic horror novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’, and it’s his interest in Gothic architecture, and his influence on the later Gothic revival that makes him important architecturally.

His own house, Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham, was one of the first Gothic houses in the country since the Middle Ages. Begun in 1749, it is full of Gothic invention, and was one of the earliest houses to open to the public.

The Louvre Pyramid by I M Pei. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The Louvre Pyramid by I M Pei. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The architect James Paine was also born in 1717 – he was baptised on 9 October.

Though a Hampshire man, he spent the earlier part of his career in Yorkshire, where he worked at Nostell Priory.

He was probably a protégé of Lord Burlington, the promoter of Palladian architecture and a Yorkshire landowner. Among Paine’s first independent works was the design of the Mansion House in Doncaster (there are to be Paine celebrations in the town this year). He also designed the stables at Chatsworth, was employed by many country house owners in the north of England and was a fashionable designer of town houses in London.

He died in France in 1789.

The next anniversary year – 1767 – was a not a bumper year for architects; those who were born that year were of mainly local significance, among them John Casson in Liverpool, Thomas Espin in Louth, John Hudson in Oxford, Joseph Patience in London and Francis Webster in Kendal. More important was John Prichard, a Welsh architect who was responsible for rebuilding Llandaff Cathedral from the 1840s. He was in partnership with John Pollard Seddon, who designed some of the stained glass in Ripon’s St Wilfrid’s Church.

1817, though, saw the birth of some more notable names – Alexander Thomson and John Loughborough Pearson – both of whom merit a bicentennial celebration. You could argue that Thomson, too, was of local significance, as he lived and worked in Glasgow throughout his career.

Born in the Stirlingshire village of Balfron on 9 April 1817, he designed in an idiosyncratic style, much of it based on Greek precedents – hence his usual appellation as ‘Greek Thomson’. He mixed other influences with the Greek, including Egyptian and Hindu, making his work distinctive and impressive. As well as commercial buildings and warehouses, he designed a number of Glasgow churches, though the St Vincent Street Church is the only intact survivor. His work is celebrated by the Alexander Thomson Society.

There is no corresponding John Loughborough Pearson Society, though it could be argued that one should be formed in his bicentennial year. He was born on 5 July 1817 – in Belgium, though his childhood was spent in Durham, where he eventually was articled to the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi.

His first work was the church at Ellerker, west of Hull, and churches were his main work. He always designed in a 13th-century Gothic style, mixing English and French elements.

They are usually lofty and have soaring spires – there are examples at Scorborough and South Dalton in East Yorkshire, at Headingley in West Yorkshire and at Wentworth in South Yorkshire. His most important work was Truro Cathedral in Cornwall.

Move forward another 50 years, to 1867, and we note that on 18 April of that year Sir Robert Smirke died. Like Alexander Thomson, he designed in the Greek revival style (though without Thomson’s imagination, it must be said). His best-known work is the British Museum, a very Grecian building with its rows of Ionic columns. He could though, design in other styles, like the Gothic Lowther Castle and the Egyptian pyramid mausoleum at Brightling, Sussex, of his friend ‘Mad’ Jack Fuller MP.

A few weeks after Smirke’s death, one of the pioneers of what we’d consider to be modern architecture was born. He was Frank Lloyd Wright, born 8 June 1867. Starting with comfortable ‘prairie houses’ – some of which could be made pre-fabricated – he developed a significant practice, using sharp-angled shapes and daring juxtapositions, embracing change and new technology and pointing the way to the buildings of today.

Fifty years after Wright’s birth, another modern architect was born. He is I M Pei; he was born in China on 27 April 1917, so will soon celebrate his 100th birthday. He has long been a citizen of the United States. His work is found all over the world, and includes the City Hall and the Myerson Symphonic Center in Dallas, the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong and most famously, the pyramid of the Louvre in Paris. He has won many honours, including the US’s highest award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He is a Chevalier in France’s Légion d’Honneur.

It’s probably too soon to consider architects born in 1967 for inclusion in such a pantheon – and who knows what those born in 2017 will achieve. What we can say is that the history of architecture is not yet finished.