In the spring of 2009, Richard William Hayes, AIA, was awarded the Center for Architecture’s Stewardson Keefe LeBrun Travel Grant to research English architect Sir John Soane and the monastic suite he designed for his London home. Hayes received his MArch from Yale University and has worked as a project architect for Rafael Viñoly Architects, MR Architecture and Décor, and Alexander Gorlin Architects. Glenda Reed, operations manager at the Center for Architecture Foundation, spoke with Hayes about his experience:
Glenda Reed: What is your interest in Sir John Soane and his monastic suite?
Richard William Hayes, AIA: Soon after the death of Soane’s wife in 1815, he began referring to a “monk’s cell” in his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, eventually carving out a sequence of spaces he called the Monk’s Parlor, Monk’s Cell, and Monk’s Yard. As architectural historian John Summerson observed, Soane conceived of the suite as a way to satirize the rising fashion for Gothic antiquarianism, as the setting for a fictional alter-ego, “Padre Giovanni,” and as a poetic arrangement of spaces that explored ideas of the Picturesque. Although the literature on Soane has grown enormously over the past few years, his monastic suite has not yet received extensive study.
GR: Where did your travels take you?
RWH: I travelled to London and researched Soane’s house by placing it in the context of the architect’s career and English architecture of the Regency era. I pursued research in the library of Soane’s house-museum, where I learned that he owned copies of two novels that introduced the theme of the monk into English literature, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and M.G. Lewis’s The Monk. The museum’s staff allowed me to enter into spaces normally closed off to visitors, including the Monk’s Cell and the Monk’s Yard. I also visited several important sites related to this theme, including Soane’s suburban retreat, Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, where the architect incorporated a monk’s dining room years before he purchased the three adjacent townhouses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields that became his house-museum. I also travelled to Knaresbourgh in Yorkshire, the evocative site of medieval castle ruins and a hermit’s cell, which Soane visited and studied in 1816 as he devised his monastic suite. Lastly, I visited Walpole’s Strawberry Hill in Twickenham as an example of the Gothic antiquarianism Soane sought to satirize.
GR: What has receiving the LeBrun Travel Grant meant to you personally and professionally?
RWH: Travelling to England to work on this research project was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and I am indebted to the Center for Architecture for affording me this opportunity. As an architect whose career has concentrated on residential design, I am particularly interested in how Soane introduced layers of meaning into this sequence of rooms in his own house. While his monastic suite may seem a jeu d’esprit of limited interest, it is my contention that the idea of the monk has wide-ranging implications in 19th-century architectural culture, evident in the famous photographs of American architect H.H. Richardson dressed in a monk’s cowl. This theme may seem far removed from practicing as an architect in the 21st century, but the ability to incorporate meaning, humor, and narrative in residential interiors remains important — can houses today aspire to more than formalism or containers for consumer goods?
The Stewardson Keefe LeBrun Travel Grant was established to further the personal and professional development of an architect in early or mid-career through travel. The deadline for the 2010 Stewardson Keefe LeBrun Travel Grant is Monday, 11.01.10. For more information visit http://www.cfafoundation.org/lebrun.