Between the mechanick and the geometer: Robert Hooke (1635-1703) as architect and mathematician 1

Hello everyone,

It is a pleasure to be back in the Conversions circle; I very much look forward to sharing my research, and contributing to the group in the near future.

As I have not had the chance to do so in the past, I would like to use this opportunity to briefly explain my doctoral research. With the architectural and mathematical work of the English virtuoso Robert Hooke (1635-1703) as a case study, I investigate the changes that occurred in architectural practice in Early Modern England as a result of the conversion of the architect from a medieval apprenticeship-trained mason into a university-educated gentleman-mathematician.

Although Hooke is now mostly known for his work as the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society of London and for writing the first book on microscopy (Micrographia, 1665), in the background of his activities as a natural philosopher was his work as a mathematical practitioner. In 1664, Hooke was appointed the Gresham Professor of Geometry in London, and in 1665 he secured the Cutlerian lectureship on the History of Nature and Art, two positions that required him to regularly lecture on mathematics and its applications, which included civil and military architecture, astronomy, geography, instrument-making, mechanics, navigation, optics, surveying, etc. After the Great Fire in 1666, he proposed an orthogonal grid plan for a new London, which facilitated his appointment as the official London surveyor for the rebuilding of the city. Hooke’s subsequent architectural career included of some of the most visible projects at the time, such as the Monument to the Great Fire of London, the infamous Bedlam Hospital, and the Royal College of Physicians which featured the first anatomical theatre built after Inigo Jones’s Barber-Surgeon’s Hall.

Paralleling Hooke’s works in architecture with his work in natural philosophy, one of the lines of inquiry I am pursuing is how some of the scientific preoccupations such as instrumentality and precision may have cross-bred into the praxis of architecture. Such crossings, I propose, had a great deal to do with the changes in the status of the ‘mechanic’. The antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-1697) called Hooke “certainly the greatest mechanick…in the world,” no doubt an allusion to mechanical philosophy and practical mathematics. Yet when considered in parallel with the suggestion that many of those involved in drama were ‘mechanicks’, i.e. guildsmen or apprentices in the construction trades (e.g. Ben Jonson, the bricklayer; also cf. Ronday Arab’s Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage, 2011), a lineage between Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ and mechanical philosophy, as well as a much more fundamental relationship between architecture and theatre (via the ‘actors’ in both fields), come to the fore. I combinatorially investigate these relationships, between the mechanick, the architect, and the mechanical philosopher, to shed some light into the many conversions of architecture.

I herewith include some images of Hooke’s works:


One thought on “Between the mechanick and the geometer: Robert Hooke (1635-1703) as architect and mathematician

  • Stephen Wittek

    Thank-you very much for this Yelda! I love the images.

    With Juan Luis’ entry in mind, I cannot help but wonder how Hooke’s plans to rebuild London might have also involved an attempt to transform the symbolic and ceremonial dimension of the city. This possibility seems particularly available when one considers that his project emerged only six years after the restoration of the monarchy. Does an orthogonal grid make an implicit statement about social order?

    For more on the London playwrights as “mechanicals” (or artisanal laborers), you may want to take a look at Stage-wrights: Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and the Making of Theatrical Value, a very helpful text by an obscure literary scholar named Paul Edward Yachnin.

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