To Be Monumental

Temples and Tombs: The Sacred and Monumental Architecture of Craig Hamilton

by Ellis Woodman
2019 Lund Humphries, 141 pages, £40
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A chapel in Gloucestershire. Photo: Paul Highnam

Can a new sacred architecture be achieved in the twenty-first century, grounded in historical precedent but decidedly pioneering all at once? Temples and Tombs: the Sacred and Monumental Architecture of Craig Hamilton, explores the question through six striking projects by South African-born architect Craig Hamilton. The three Catholic chapels, two mausolea, and a bathhouse were privately commissioned and built in England since the new millennium began. Its author, Ellis Woodman, an English architectural critic, directs the London-based Architecture Foundation.

An earnest classicist, Hamilton eschews the usual canon of orders prescribed by Renaissance writers—the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite—in favor of sophisticated but often idiosyncratic employment of archaic, ancient, modern, and invented architectural forms for these projects. His uncomplicated space planning, taut proportioning and massing, rigorous detailing, and even-handed restraint results in a singular style that lends itself to the sacred and to the monumental.

Hamilton is the heir to a special league of architects from modern history keenly interested in innovating architecture’s classical language. “Hamilton identifies with a lineage of classicists who have maintained a[n] … instrumental relationship between scholarship and inventive design,” Woodman writes. It includes Italian Mannerist Michelangelo, neoclassicists and innovators John Soane of the British Regency and German Karl Friedrich Schinkel, nineteenth century eclectic archeological designer Charles Robert Cockerell, English master Edwin Lutyens, and early twentieth- century architects of abstracted classicism Marcello Piacentini and Jože Plečnik. Hamilton has a seat among them.

Woodman includes rich descriptions of the buildings’ strong religious and artistic programs, Christian for the chapels and mythological for the bath temple. These programs, executed primarily in sculpture, rely on the talents of Scottish sculptor and fellow classicist Alexander Stoddart, Hamilton’s constant collaborator and author of the monograph’s afterword. For Hamilton, Stoddart writes, “the central votive image is the first, not the last, concern when a sacred or sepulchral building is being designed.” The building is “the home for the statue.”

Hamilton strove for total integration of art, architecture, and design. He preferred rich materials, especially in interiors, which most frequently include polychromatic compositions of marbles, Stoddart’s sculpture, and bronze.

The book features many beautifully drafted and wash-rendered drawings by Hamilton, which visually describe all aspects of the projects—even seat cushions—in meticulous detail. The book includes no perspectival drawings, only plans, sections, and elevations. The drawings are as crisp and resolved as the photographed work, and they are evidently important to a practice where refinement, complete resolution, and exacting execution of detail is central to its own perception of success.

Woodman’s prose is eloquent and manageable. Absent are the jargon and meaningless phrases too commonly encountered in most current architectural publications. It is also brief. A reader could complete the entire text in an afternoon.

His descriptions are crisp and filled with references to architectural history. He consistently identifies Hamilton’s eclectic array of source material and attributes that formal precedent to members of the architect’s preferred cast of heroes: Cockerell, Lutyens, Plečnik, and others. Temples and Tombs would make a valuable addition to the library of any architectural designer, but it is also for anyone with a passing interest in sacred space, classicism, art, sculpture, and design.

As demonstrated by the drawings and Woodman’s analysis, Hamilton was principally concerned with aesthetics and with creating a high architecture, timeless and measurable against any historical standard of design. Woodman argues that his architecture amounts to a rebuke of architectural historian John Summerson’s 1941 declaration that, “to endeavor to be monumental is to be untrue to our own times.”

Thomas P. Boyle is an architect at Ferguson & Shamamian Architects in New York. He studied architecture at the University of Notre Dame.