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Friday25 July 2014

Building a Library 45: Heavenly Mansions

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Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.

Heavenly mansions and other essays on architecture
By John Summerson, 1948

The 10 pieces that make up this book were not conceived as parts of a whole, and the reader may wonder how they can work so well together. Summerson is not given to mentioning himself, and yet… His writing gives off a strong sense of the temperament that produced it.

The secret of the book’s coherence lies in its writer’s preferences and a habitual waywardness, which continually threatens shocking effects without ever quite crossing the boundaries of good behaviour.

Summerson typically presents his architects as colourful characters, formed by their early experiences. This way of beginning any subject with psychological delving makes temperament all-important, and turns studies of architects into something more like novels.

Another of Summerson’s strayings outside conventional boundaries is to connect buildings to the literary monuments of their period. So Gandy’s drawing of Merlin’s Tomb is linked with Coleridge’s Christabel, and Butterfield’s All Saints Margaret Street is tied to Wuthering Heights. One can’t argue with a certain consistency in the choices, yet somehow the effect is to exaggerate the wildness found in the disparate forms.

Summerson’s mind regularly gravitates to startling conjunctions: Pompeian wall paintings and Gothic portals at Chartres, Alberti’s theoretical treatise and Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. One of these pairs is presented as a source and its echo, the other as two sides of a medal, the Renaissance. But they both work like extravagant figures of speech, which dislodge as much as they solidify the argument.

Alberti is a sinister fanatic, Butterfield a sadist from a Gothic novel, lurid depictions which hint at the author’s restiveness. This impulse emerges alarmingly in the concluding diatribe against preservation. First he evokes the historic core of an English town with affectionate wit, then recommends radical replanning wherever possible. With a final flourish the historian consigns the past to the bin.

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