Tuesday, June 05, 2012


St Mary Woolnoth is the smallest and oddest of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches. It is comparable in a way to St George’s Bloomsbury, in that both are built on small, irregular sites in the middle of the city. But where St George’s baffles through its surfeit of competing styles, bizarre accoutrements and incongruous Hanoverian iconography, St Mary Woolnoth is compelling because of its coherence.

Its design, both inside and out, is utterly original: peculiar, punky, brutal (one is tempted to say brutal-ist). Hawksmoor takes the towers of the Stepney churches, beheads them so that they become squat little boxes with balustrades for tops (the effect is a little like the joke where a grown man puts shoes on his knees) and places them on top of an entablature. The entablature lies on a set of Corinthian columns, and these are separated (by a coffin-like podium with three punched-out windows) from the severely rusticated doorway. 

I should point out here that I have described it upside-down, for no eye would ever start at the top and work downwards. The violently horizontal grooves which inscribe the west front (including two wonderfully modern Tuscan columns and the steps leading up to the door) gives the impression that the building is broader than it is, and also shorter. This is apt, given the tiny plot which Hawksmoor had to work with. It lurches at you, twitching aggressively at you like an animal on a lead, so that you are afraid to turn away from it. Keep your eyes down, don’t look up.

So far, so wild. The interior is something else altogether, and of course it gains something from being so perilously close to, yet cloistered from, the Royal Exchange and the Bank and the Mansion House and the cars and buses that hurtle across the intersection of so many roads. Close the doors once you’re inside and hope nobody disturbs you. Now you can look up – and you will quickly discover you are in a cube within a cube.

The inner cube has three deliciously white Corinthian columns at each corner, supporting a rich entablature which, as Ian Nairn points out, projects forward slightly at the corners. A subtle shift, but one which accentuates the squareness of the square, and the brilliance of the light shining through the semi-circular windows above. Around the perimeter of the outer cube, bits and pieces scattered out of sight, inviting you to explore: two organs (only one operational), the intricately carved reredos and the almost obscenely twisting columns at the altar, various monuments and dedications, and a tribute to Eliot (or rather, his tribute to the church). Happy exploring – but you will be drawn back to the inner cube before too long.

These are generalities. I haven’t mentioned the details: the niches on Lombard Street with their columns placed on the diagonal, the little door marked “vestry” (how is there possibly room for one?), and (the cherry on the top) the teller over the pulpit whose shape echoes the ceiling. It’s details like these that get under your skin. I have fallen asleep thinking about this place, and I have woken up thinking about it. You may laugh, but that’s how it is. Nairn writes that “the real focus of the church is yourself, wherever you are standing. If the Saint Chapelle or Die Wies transports outwards, this forces inwards, quintessentially Protestant. You are forced in through yourself, and this is not a romantic view but the strictest spatial analysis.” So perhaps that explains it.


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