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Soane : Master of Light and Space

by Richard MacCormac

Richard MacCormac gave an introductory speech at the opening party for the Sir John Soane exhibition at the RoyalAcademy, September – December 1999.

This edited version was published in the Architects’ Journal, 16 September 1999


I have been asked to talk briefly about why Sir John Soane is of such interest to architects today, but before I do so I should also say something about the reasons for mounting this great Royal Academy exhibition, which forms part of a pattern of architectural exhibitions which alternate between the contemporary (the last exhibition was of the work of Tadao Ando) and the historical. These exhibitions, with the annual lecture and Academy Forum symposia, form the academy’s lively and continuing architecture programme.

While the SoaneMuseum, the most complete and complex collection of Soane’s works, can be visited, this exhibition permits us through selection to survey the full sequence of his architectural achievement from his training and early projects to his great, late buildings and unrealised projects, focusing on the building which dominated his life for 40 years: the Bank of England. Its demolition must be the greatest act of architectural vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries.

I speak as a practising architect rather than as an historian and I see the present interest in Soane as completely distinct from the revival of interest in classicism in the 1980s, which was intended to pitch ‘modernists’ against classicists. That stage- managed antipathy has died away and today we find Soane inspires a whole range of real architects, including Richard Meier, Rafael Moneo, Arata Isozaki and Tadao Ando, as well as a significant group of British architects, all of whom are working in the various idioms of the late twentieth century, rather than using Soane as a source for imitation. So the current interest in Soane and the event of this exhibition closes the door on the false opposition between history and modernity which has debased architectural debate in recent years.

Within this reconciliation we can also perceive two important intellectual shifts: the first is that for modern architects, and particularly British architects, to embrace history is also to extend the discourse beyond technology and function to acknowledge the autonomous characteristics of architecture which Soane’s work so vividly declares. The second point is that a non-stylistic attitude to architectural history invites a much more penetrating and creative approach to the architecture of the past. Interpretations of Soane offer an important exemplar. Even in his own time, Soane was recognised as a radical who did not sit comfortably in the classical tradition. I see him as a maverick who re-worked classicism in his own highly unconventional way. Is this a peculiarly British phenomenon in relation to European architecture, which starts with Robert Smythson, the architect of Hardwick Hall in the late sixteenth century; Hawksmoor in the late seventeenth century; and Soane and Greek Thompson in the nineteenth century?

Soane’s architecture is also of such complexity that if another Soane enthusiast was speaking instead of me this evening, you could be sure that the interpretations would be quite different from mine. So why this interest?

The most obvious characteristics for architects of my generation are the spatial fluency, vistas and axes which skewer their way through the Lincoln’s Inn house and museum, amazingly anticipating the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright, 100 years later. These long views run through the edges as well as the centres of sequences of rooms – penetrating both horizontally and vertically and creating rooms within rooms, an idea which invites the reconstructions within the Academy rooms which give this exhibition its special quality.

The energy lies in the periphery, and here I think is the most interesting phenomenon. In the famous breakfast room in Lincoln’s Inn, the north and south walls have been moved away from the boundaries defined by the central saucer dome. Light – coloured light – and space have taken the place of enclosure with the most uncanny effect. So space and light are the media of Soane’s work, as in the work of Soane’s colleague and contemporary Turner. This is not the simple transparency of Modernism, but something altogether more mysterious and more ambiguous, something which psychologically challenges our conventional expectations and experiences of space, just as does the work of artists such as Anish Kapoor and James Turrell today. Soane is a space and light architect whose capacity for invention seems inexhaustible. This exhibition should open up our understanding and widen our interpretation of his architecture.