The festival, organised by the Architecture Foundation and the ORNC, was a one-day event designed to interrogate the value of the classical foundation of architectural practice. It excelled in doing it, despite the miserable weather, with that nimble and expressive humour that makes these things as much entertainment as education. I was part of the humorous side – the impersonation of a long dead and highly revered architect, the mind behind the wonderful plan that is the Old Royal Naval College – Sir Christopher Wren.
Yet my feeling from this experience has less to do with the extrovert playful interchange with Will Palin, curator and leader of the walking tour around the site with whom I wandered, and more to do with the very chance of the act itself. Though I enjoy idle wanderings, whimsical forays to assuage curiosity and (hopefully) widen experience, this is a state of mind separate to the logical mind required of fee-earning projects. The necessity of practice makes money the driver and everything else second. I took this moment to enjoy the whimsy, ignore the rain and let my mind wander.
The buildings that come out of this renewed (or recovered) mind are still the same – their physicality hasn’t changed – but meaning of that form, the influence of that space and the reception of certain details all conspire to make one shake the head as if to refresh the eyes and ensure that the sight is real. From the wonderful Queen’s House – delicate, small, perfect in its compactness – to the large vista of the main Wren axis to the river, things began to divert me. First it was the level change from our meeting point to the rear of QH to the central courtyard – a service tract, a back-stage access to the two stages that faced away north and south from it. It felt highly theatrical, a perception of architecture as a continuous production that included the un-scripted (but the none-the-less well-versed) lines of personal exchange that characterise life. Hardly surprising as Inigo Jones was, as Comptroller General, the designer of masks and the ceremonies that entertained the Jacobean court.
Once we had braved the blustering storm and got to the Hawksmoor block and stood in front of it, the most enlivening thing of all: the playful mind making a subtle dig at the classical conventions of the day, not so much laughing at Wren’s expense – it wasn’t an egotistic ‘one-over’ – but rather the use of a classical vocabulary used excellently and beyond the narrow confines of its normal use. This is my lasting and general dislike of modern building done in a classical style: none are done with any humour or wide-eyed excitement as to the possibilities possible. All seem to conform to a self-imposed orthodoxy that sit strait-jacketed in their plot, rigid and stolid; grey, humourless lumps that add nothing but a harking back to a more un-equal age and the power of the few over the many.
Although the latter hasn’t changed that much, the way it is done – less the country pile and more the corporate policy – has. And the delights of a classical language are more than anything of such remit: there is a depth that relates to the practicality of building and the weathering factor of materials and forms – both of themselves and their context – as well as the intellect of an ideal, the ideal that is philosophy applied without the hindrance of corrupting low denominators. It highlights an aspiration to be better, more that what is presently done, to constantly strive beyond the existing confines of life and life’s emblems left. Yes, this was a building to show the might of the Monarch but it was – like the Chelsea Hospital - a place for ex-servicemen to recuperate and so be enjoyed by those who weren’t kings or nobles. It showed the advanced learning of the age through a man noted for his academic research and gave to all this sense of wonder, authority and delight in use that is egalitarian. It gives hope and a reassuring push to trust inner strength and get moving. In this, it reminds of the final bit of Tennyson’s Ulysses:
“… And though we are not that strength
Which is old days moved Earth and Heaven,
That which we are, we are.
One equal temper of heroic hearts made weak by time and fate
But strong in will: to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”