Classical architecture is a visual "language" and like any other language has its own grammatical rules. Classical buildings as widely spaced in time as a Roman temple, an Italian Renaissance palace and a Regency house all show an awareness of these rules even if they vary them, break them or poetically contradict them. Sir Christopher Wren described them as the "Latin" of architecture and the analogy is almost exact. There is the difference, however, that whereas the learning of Latin is a slow and difficult business, the language of classical architecture is relatively simple. It is still, to a great extent, the mode of expression of our urban surroundings, since classical architecture was the common language of the western world till comparatively recent times. Anybody to whom architecture makes a strong appeal has probably already discovered something of its grammar for himself.
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John Summerson Biography John Summerson Biography British art historian John Summerson — enjoyed a long and eminent career as an expert on London architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Jenkins called the work "a great shout of clarity amid a postwar babble of destruction and stylistic confusion. See beauty and worth in the London all around us … before trying to improve on it. It was then, Summerson continued, that he first understood "that mysterious sense of inspiration in the presence of forgotten, deserted, broken things: derelict houses, forlorn castles, overgrown gardens, neglected graves, blitz ruins. That school was located at Riber Castle, a monstrosity from that was the work of a local tycoon who had declined to hire a professional architect for the job.
In his teens Summerson attended the Harrow School, a prestigious private academy for boys in northwest London that opened in , and graduated as a talented organist. In he headed north to Scotland, taking a teaching job at the Edinburgh College of Art School of Architecture for a year.
He then spent some time traveling throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. Hired by the Modern Architectural Research Group MARS , a think tank founded by a group of modernist architects, he settled back in London, moving on to a job as an assistant editor for the magazine Architect and Building News in In Summerson had come upon some drawings by architect John Nash — in a print shop.
Regency architecture followed many of the same tenets as the previously dominant style, Georgian, so named for the quartet of King Georges who reigned from to , though the term is usually used in British architecture to refer to the years between and Georgian architecture was neo-classical, or a revival of the signature elements of Greek and Roman antiquity.
London In Flux When Summerson began his career as an architectural historian, some of the most famous Regency properties in London were in danger of extinction. The original year leases on the parcels were ending, and a British aristocracy suddenly impoverished by World War I and the Great Depression could no longer afford to keep some of the century-old Regency villas built in the western part of the city. Summerson hoped to draw public attention to the beauty of this style and help preserve London for future generations.
His mission brought him to the National Buildings Record in , a professional, largely voluntary organization dedicated to photographing London landmarks before they were destroyed by bombs during World War II, when German aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the city. Summerson served as the deputy director of the organization, and roamed the streets with a camera photographing many of the landmarks himself. In Summerson was appointed a member of the Listed Buildings Committee, a government agency that designated certain public or private properties as protected because of their architectural, historical, or cultural importance.
He served on the committee for the next 22 years, chairing it once in the early s, and held similar posts as a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, and the Historic Buildings Council. At Oxford and Cambridge universities, he held the Slade Professorships for one academic year at each, beginning in and , respectively, and also lectured for many years on the history of architecture at the Architectural Association and then at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London system.
As his Times of London obituary noted years later, Summerson "was a first-rate lecturer in spite of a somewhat aloof, and seemingly haughty style, which was much in vogue among certain art historians at the time. Both as a writer and as a speaker he was remarkable for his polished elegance and fluency, peppered by a dry wit.
He termed London "the least authoritarian city in Europe. It is remarkable for the freedom with which it developed," he noted, according to a Times Literary Supplement review from Charles Vince that appeared in March of More than 40 years later, a new edition of the work, updated by Summerson, was critiqued in the Sunday Times by Jenkins, who commended the author for his "analysis not just of the major buildings, but of the integrated nature of the 18th and earlyth century townscape.
To him, Georgian London was an interplay of taste and wealth, producing a distinctive pattern of street and square, terrace and church, market and shopping arcade. Soane — was an important architect of the Georgian era who designed several notable buildings, and left his equally noteworthy home and collection of art and artifacts to the British public. Summerson served as curator for the museum until his retirement in , and the job allowed him time to pursue his scholarly work. He published several more volumes, including Heavenly Mansions, and Other Essays on Architecture , a collection of his essays that became a staple for first-year architecture students for decades to come.
The survey Architecture in Britain, — appeared in , followed by Sir Christopher Wren , a biography of the architect of St.
Made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in and knighted in for his professional achievements, Summerson was a well-known expert in his day.
He wrote regularly on preservation issues, such as the bid to save Euston Station in north London. Several years later Summerson penned another essay for the newspaper, in which he wrote about the coming European Architectural Heritage Year of As his Times of London obituary noted, the architectural historian "preferred the past.
His wife, a dancer he married in named Elizabeth Alison Hepworth, preceded him in death. They lived in the Chalk Farm section of London, where they raised triplet sons. Summerson left an unfinished autobiography, but his legacy remains unmatched. An essay on him in the online source Dictionary of Art Historians praised him for his stewardship of the Soane Museum, during which he "transformed the quaint though stodgy institution into a specialty museum of international stature.
As an architectural historian," the profile continued, Summerson "changed British architectural history from the hobby of architects to an academic discipline. Sunday Times London, England , August 28, User Contributions: Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: Name:.
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