Saturday, September 26, 2009
Old St Pancras Churchyard, London
Round the back of the refurbished and extended St Pancras station lies a secluded garden made up of the Old St Giles' burial ground and the churchyard of St Pancras, a quiet spot shaded by plane trees. Apart from two men sweeping leaves I had the place to myself, and I was certainly the only person there interested in making a pilgrimage to this small but oddly influential English building, the mausoleum of the great architect Sir John Soane and his family.
It's a typical Soane structure in its very personal Classicism, its handling of spaces and layers, its shallow dome, and its symbolism. His wife having died in 1815, Soane conceived this building in the following year. It is a series of layers. Innermost is a large chunk of Carrara marble; this is roofed by a small marble structure consisting of four Ionic columns and a canopy; this in turn is covered by a larger structure in Portland stone with a shallow dome; the whole is surrounded by a low wall. The dome's finial is a pine cone (a Classical symbol of renewal) surrounded by a snake swallowing its tail (symbolizing eternity).
The monument is a fascinating bringing-outdoors of several of Soane's interior obsessions – domes, narrow spaces, those segmental slivers beneath the dome, the symbolic language, and so on. It's arresting, seems simple until you examine the careful and complex art with which it's put together, is completely non-Christian, and very typical of its architect's vision. Soane, though, deeply in mourning for his wife and troubled by domestic arrangements and disputes over her effects, found it hard to visit the monument once it was up.
Architectural pilgrims, however, have no such qualms. No doubt one of the most admiring was Giles Gilbert Scott, whose classic design for the red telephone box seems to have been heavily influenced by the monument. How odd that this rarified and personal design should have inspired the creation of something so universal, that the language of mourning should be translated into a symbol of communication. Such are the anxieties of architectural influence, and such are their satisfactions.