Significant Architectural Work By Novelist Thomas Hardy Rediscovered

A major architectural discovery may be about to change the way we think about one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who is familiar to anyone who has studied British literature, was an acclaimed novelist, poet, and dramatist. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a whopping 12 times, back when that was a highly prestigious award, although he never actually won. In books such as “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”, Hardy often exposed the darker, more savage undertones of the veneer of Victorian propriety. His works have been turned into popular films and television series many times over.

What you may not know about Thomas Hardy however, is that he was also an architect. Hardy left the profession in the early 1870’s in order to pursue writing full time, leaving few completed projects to his name. A simple, but unusual and creative example of his work can still be found, perhaps appropriately for Hardy the writer of somber literature, in a London graveyard – a design which deserves a brief detour in our story of discovery.

Back in 1865 the young Thomas Hardy, apprenticed to a London architect who specialized in the restoration and redecoration of old churches, was faced with a somewhat macabre task. He had been given the unenviable job of clearing part of the cemetery located on the grounds of Old St. Pancras Church in Central London. A new railway line was set to cut through the churchyard, but a number of graves stood in its path. The coffins of the deceased had to be disinterred, under Hardy’s supervision, and moved to another location which the church had acquired for this purpose.

The problem of what to do with all of the old tombstones, which would not be accompanying the remains to their new resting place, was another matter. At the time, common practice was either to smash up discarded gravestones for other uses such as paving, or to simply throw them away. Hardy’s unusual solution was to stack the stones against each other in concentric circles, around the base of a young tree. Today, the so-called “Hardy Tree” still exists; over the years its roots have enveloped many of the crumbling, moss-covered grave markers that Hardy had arranged around its trunk.

But back to our main story.

Hardy’s architectural renderings from his early days have reappeared from time to time, such as in the 1970’s when several of Hardy’s proposed designs for a reredos in the church of All Saints, Windsor, were discovered hidden in the organ loft of that building. In traditional Western church architecture, a reredos is a prominent structure located directly behind the main altar of a church, which is usually decorated with carvings, mosaics, or paintings. Until now however, it was assumed that these were just some ideas by the young draughtsman which were never carried out.

As The Guardian reported yesterday, two members of the congregation at All Saints were recently exploring the historic church, looking for the original foundation stone that had been laid by the Empress Frederick of Prussia, daughter of Queen Victoria back in 1863, when they stumbled upon what appears to be Hardy’s completed reredos:

I said, ‘Let’s have a root around with a torch’, and he said, ‘I’ve always wondered why the panelling behind the altar sticks out a bit’,” said Tunstall. “I lay down, and shone my iPhone torch up the back. I didn’t see a foundation stone, but I saw a carved motive and a decorative panel.”

Tunstall realised the design on the altar-stone resembled a design hanging at the back of the church – the one, he said, that had been designed by Hardy. “The discovery shows it did exist, but that it had been covered over some time in the 1920s,” he said. “It’s every little boy and little girl’s dream, to discover hidden treasure.”

The church is now engaged in a fundraising campaign to remove the carved paneling that was used to cover over Hardy’s altarpiece about a century ago. It estimates that it will cost close to $12,000 to do the work, and of course no one knows how much restoration will be required once the paneling is removed. When exposed however, I suspect that this discovery will prove to be a major addition to our understanding of Thomas Hardy both as an architect and as an author.

In later life, Thomas Hardy wrote an essay entitled “Memories of Church Restoration” for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which he was a member. In it, he recounted his experiences as a young draughtsman and architect working during the Gothic Revival period of Victorian architecture, when the influences of people like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin were at their peak. Hardy voiced his regret over the tendency of architects and designers of that time to try to make existing Gothic buildings even more Gothic-y, by ripping out their ancient interiors. 

In the case of All Saints however, since the church was brand-new when Hardy was working on it, he must not have felt such concerns. He was designing something new, for a new building, albeit evoking the architectural styles of the past. Hardy’s appreciation of historic architecture, and his understanding that there is much to be learned from it, ended up significantly influencing his work as a writer. 

Although he later abandoned the profession of architect, Thomas Hardy never lost his interest in architecture, nor lost sight of the importance that a building’s design can have on the life of an individual. Old buildings and the secrets contained within their ancient walls often played key roles in Hardy’s writing. All the more appropriate then, that a secret hidden in one of the few buildings that he himself worked on, may soon be brought back into the light.

Air & Space and Architecture

​As those of us in the Nation’s Capital prepare for the arrival of the jawa sandcrawler – excuse me, the National Museum of African American History and Culture – another hideous building located just a bit further away on the national front yard may be facing the wrecking ball. The National Air & Space Museum, the most popular tourist attraction on The Mall, is falling apart. Its repairs will prove so expensive, that there are calls to demolish the 40-year old structure and start over.

Excuses made for the failure of the building include the rush to complete it in time for the country’s bicentennial, as well as years of deferred maintenance, but truthfully the Air & Space is just another example of the poor quality of most public buildings built after World War II. The museum’s original architect, Gyo Obata, has built numerous awful buildings, such as the giant stacked coffee filters collectively known as the priory church for St. Louis Abbey in St. Louis, Missouri, or the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a complex whose central building the Air & Space somewhat resembles. There seems to be little love for the current museum building itself, although truthfully there are so many ugly museums on The Mall already, that at this point one more or less really will not make much of a difference.

In thinking about the Air & Space of course, one can’t help but think about architecture and air travel. We don’t have spaceports just yet, but for many decades airports have featured innovative, futuristic designs that give us a bit of a preview of what those may eventually look like. This is partly because commercial air travel is a comparatively new concept for architects to try and tackle, there are few if any historical constraints imposed upon the renderings of such structures. The notion of building an airport that resembles a Gothic guildhall, for example, would strike us as silly.

Given its rejection of earlier architectural styles, airports have had both notable successes and catastrophic failures when it comes to their design. The old TWA terminal at JFK, designed by Eero Saarinen, is a personal favorite; I was fortunate enough to actually fly out of there on several occasions, when it was still a functioning terminal. Meanwhile the blocky Dallas Fort Worth International Airport designed by the aforementioned Mr. Obata is routinely rated as one of the worst in the country. New airports continue to present passengers and armchair architecture critics with mixed results.

Take for example the concept art shown below for the new Kannur International Airport in southwestern India, which is currently under construction. The design features glass curtain walls at either end, which look out onto a broad strip of landscaping dotted with tall palm trees. The building has a gently sloping canopy to cover the roadway where passengers will be picked up or dropped off, while the opposite wall is clear of obstructions, so that passengers can look out to the runway as airplanes take off or land. It is not a large airport, but it seems like it would be a very pleasant one.

By contrast, the new Mexico City International Airport proposed by starchitects Norman Foster and Fernando Romero seems designed to fail. The design, which looks somewhat incongruously like a giant Nazca petroglyph of a spider, features the expansive canopies of glass which have become a trademark of Lord Foster’s style (see, e.g. the courtyards of both the British Museum and the American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery.) While the project’s designers claim that the structure will be efficient at cooling the space, one cannot help but think that all of that glass in a subtropical climate is going to bake the waiting passengers during sunny weather. One can also imagine it leaking or even cracking under pressure from the heavy tropical storms and hail of the rainy season that plagues this part of the North American continent.    

If there is to be a new building for the Air & Space Museum, it would be nice to see proposals that both reflect the monumentality of its surroundings, while at the same time provide something of the innovative yet functional design elements which well-designed airports provide to their passengers. No one expects a museum about air travel and space exploration to look like a Greek temple, but the heavy, uninspiring block of the museum’s present incarnation is a strangely grounded one, for an institution that is supposed to celebrate the story of human flight. This celebration of man’s perennial desire to soar into the skies deserves a better form of architectural expression.

Chinese Skyscrapers, Renaissance Style

Architecture is an infinitely rewarding area of study, because just when you think you’ve seen and heard of everything, you come across something like the Italian Renaissance skyscrapers of rural China, and realize that you still have a lot to learn.

In many countries around the world, the rural landscape is dotted with the crumbling architectural fantasies of middle class Victorians and Edwardians. The profusion of styles employed in these places usually did not approximate the originals on which they were based: Italian Renaissance Revival houses, for example, do not greatly resemble the Renaissance palazzi of Florence, Venice, or Genoa. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution however, they could be built comparatively cheaply and quickly.

In general terms, this process is not very much different from how new middle class housing is built today. Buyers seeking to build their own Medici villa could usually select from a series of options in a builder’s catalogue, and then customize their new home with their preferred finishes and as much ornament as they could afford. Just about every small town in America has at least one prominent example of this sort of architectural pastiche, built around the turn of the previous century.

A more unusual manifestation of this trend appeared in rural China at about the same time. In Guandong Province, not far from Hong Kong, quasi-Tuscan towers called “diaolus” sprang up in great numbers during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. As the Chinese middle classes became both more well-traveled and well-to-do, acquiring homes and businesses overseas, they wanted to display their new wealth back home, and to protect that wealth from attacks by bandits that continued to plague the countryside. Some of these diaolus served as grand residences, for when the owner was in town, while others were built to serve communal purposes, such as watchtowers or places to hole up in times of danger.

At one time, it is estimated that there were over 3,000 such towers dotting the landscape in Guandong. A significant number have been demolished, but hundreds still remain, thanks in part to their recognition as world heritage sites by UNESCO back in 2007. Their future at present is unclear, since finding new purposes for what are in most cases abandoned rural buildings of rather large size is a significant problem in today’s China, where over the past decade the countryside has been rapidly emptied, as peasants leave the land in favor of urban job opportunities and greater social mobility.  

Unlike the tower villas of classic Tuscan hill towns such as San Gimignano, on which these constructions are perhaps loosely based, many of these structures stand independently of one another, rather than clustered next to each other for protection. Some of the towers are exotic mixtures of European and Asian styles, such as the elaborate Ruishi Dialou in the village of Jinjiangli pictured below. It features a bizarre combination of Italian Renaissance tower shaft, a top formed of an arcade and a series of Byzantine-Mughal cupolas, and gigantic Chinese characters painted onto the façade.

None of these structures are great works of architecture. Yet collectively, they are an interesting, sometimes amusing look at the way different architectural styles can be combined to create something truly unique. If any of my readers have been to see these unusual towers, I would be very curious to learn more about what they are like.