Frank Gehry received the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects three years ago, at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. His body language signalled an element of awe, and he began his acceptance speech with a nervous admission of the fact. The Metal Guru had been fronted up by cool, calm architectural order, devised by a mere theatre-wallah in the 17th century.
Inigo Jones, encouraged by James I and then Charles I, brought classical architecture to Britain. Those who feel that modern neo-classical buildings are exercises in exclusivity, and that classically inclined postmodern architecture is absurd, may not care less. Yet what Jones did remains extraordinary. In a London hugger-mugger with mired sewers, rickety wooden buildings and gothic gubbins, he brought a purity as shocking to the plebs as Bauhaus Modernism was to their descendants in the 20th century.
Michael Leapman's consideration in his new biography of this architectural plagiarist - nothing wrong with that habit, of course - does not emphasise that particular point. But it does throw up a tempting question. Inigo Jones changed the course of monumental British architecture in less than 30 years because the two monarchs for whom he acted as surveyor general were prepared to commission what amounted to shock-of-the-new architecture. Would our own Prince Charles risk encouraging anything so epoch-making?
Jones lit the touch-paper for, among others, the vastly more talented Christopher Wren. Leapman's unhistrionic account does not fret about Jones's lack of originality. But it does stitch together the story of a gifted creator of regal masque settings who knew architectural beauty when he saw it and was skilled enough, following two patronised tours of Italy, to make it happen here. Jones designed fewer than 20 buildings, but each was a kind of perfection, however hard it sometimes is, today, to see rigid order and proportion as that.
How did Jones do it? In bits and pieces. Consider his career menu: a stream of masques bristling with special effects; sheafs of Palladio's own architectural drawings brought back from Europe; the obligation to improve London's town planning, sewers, brick quality and prescribed wall thicknesses; the design of the King's classical Banqueting House, in Whitehall; and Covent Garden, London's first speculative residential square. Just a series of days at the office, mílord.
Not bad for a chronically ill masque-contriver scathingly referred to by Ben Jonson, his regular theatrical collaborator, as Vitruvius Hoop in a "monkey-get mechanic age". Leapman covers Jones's masque duties in considerable detail. This threatens to irritate until one realises that they were as creatively important to Jones as his architecture.
Leapman's narrative is nicely poised, because it steers clear of academic density and reader-friendly jump-cuts or conclusions. We are, alas unavoidably, still left knowing less about one of Britain's greatest architectural figures than about the scores of mediocre modern practitioners whose dubious places in history will be assured by their digitised hyperbole. Maybe that's what gave Fabulous Frank pause for thought when the RIBA Gold Medal was proffered that night in the Banqueting House.
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