The three words of this significant book's main title might well stand between quotation marks, for the inclusion of “practice” in the subtitle indicates its real subject. This is a complex story of how architectural design as practice—still far from the modern use of the term profession—parted ways with the provision of materials and the supervision of building projects on-site. Merlijn Hurx's focus on the Low Countries immediately challenges conventional narratives that privilege Italy while also shifting the usual chronology back to the mid-fourteenth century. Like many recent historians of this period, Hurx decentralizes issues of style (although key aspects of challenging alternative styles have their place here), suggesting that factors such as economics, provision of materials, and networks of patronage offer more useful guides to a changing landscape of ambitious building projects. Dominant figures, whom we might well call “architects,” are present in these pages, but they emerge as having been trained and skilled in ways that contrast with modern perceptions of the architect's role in society.

Hurx lays the case for an Italo-centered view at the door of Richard Goldthwaite, even as he praises Goldthwaite's groundbreaking analysis. He challenges Goldthwaite's claims that only in Italy were architects afforded the privilege of focusing their attention on design—leaving others to handle construction management—and that traditional building practices outside Italy supplied materials to one commission at a time. The evidence for northern Europe proves otherwise; the booming construction activity, both public and private, in the towns and cities of the Low Countries led to the formation of new supply patterns, making the transportation of materials across long distances profitable. If the argument for Italian exceptionalism emerged from Goldthwaite's The Building of Renaissance Florence (1980), his subsequent book, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600 (1993), argued that the growing demand for the newest luxury goods drove stylistic innovation and the use of more expensive materials.1  The construction of new buildings gets caught up in this argument, with the claim that each new work was expected to exceed the size and magnificence of what had come immediately before, much as with contemporary urban skylines like London's. More recent scholarship has attempted to rein in this emphasis on the demand for the newly made, stressing instead that materials were reused and recycled (especially for decorative and applied arts, where items were often borrowed for occasions rather than commissioned specially). Consistent with this line of thought, Hurx stresses the continuity of practice, style, and content for buildings in the Low Countries, as established by a number of significant projects dating from the middle of the fourteenth century. The fact that designers often worked on more than one project at any given time further supported such continuities. We have long recognized the late fourteenth-century work of the itinerant Peter Parler, for example, but Hurx establishes here a similar multilocational activity for Evert Spoorwater (d. 1474) and several succeeding generations of the Keldermans family.

The key to Hurx's argument—with its emphasis on busy, itinerant designers and an industry of supply that extended across considerable distances—is the abundance, portability, and versatility of stone gathered from a variety of sources. The book focuses on the area around Brussels, which, over more than two hundred years, provided stone throughout the region, from Calais in the west to Enkhuizen in the north. The cost of transport meant that the farther the site from the source of stone, the more likely that builders limited their use of it to the decorative dressing or embellishment of a brick core. The huge market for stone proved to be a vital factor in the establishment of different construction specialties as builders pursued greater efficiency.

One of Hurx's most persuasive arguments is that new procedures emerged around the provision of stone—from the buying of plots of land for quarries to the contracting out of excavation and finishing work to the proliferation of suppliers of different materials. This argument also raises questions about how contracting out certain tasks could have potentially driven down prices. Hurx stresses that these highly specialized construction industries answered needs that extended well beyond individual architectural commissions. It is true that buildings required both particular forms of stone and particular kinds of craftsmanship and expertise: stone was quarried from different sites and cut in different ways depending on its intended use as moldings, window tracery, floor tiles, or gutters. Yet only a small proportion of stone went into buildings, in comparison to the immense quantity of stone excavated for paving materials and to build quaysides and dikes. Hurx points to another key development in his discussion of prefabrication, noting that finishing materials at the quarry kept expertise local and reduced waste, thus cutting costs for patrons.

Holding all this together—alongside evidence of surviving buildings, many restored or rebuilt in this oft-devastated part of Europe—is the paper record, and here Hurx has new evidence to present. In addressing the role of the contract, he engages with a debate well known to those who have tackled the genesis of art making as a business in this period. Evidence from Italy, England, and elsewhere has shown that the contractual stage of the building process was concerned with anticipating potential legal disputes. Contracts were intended to stand up if cases were brought before the courts, and thus they sought to define what the maker, or manufacturer, promised to do and what the patron could expect to pay and receive. However, contracts often tell us little about intentions, or about the physical details and appearance of things. For that kind of evidence, we must often rely on the presumption of unrecorded conversations and lost communications. Contracts could never be used in directive or practical ways as working documents on building sites. The freedom to interpret and even improvise within contractual frameworks is supported by documentary evidence of visits paid to buildings by key figures during the commissioning process. These buildings could have served as inspiration or as benchmarks for basic requirements. This referencing of earlier models did not necessarily indicate, as often believed in the past, an intention to surpass what had gone before, but it helped to establish expectations regarding certain basic forms. Usually these models were local, but they could also be more distant, as with multiple commissions for the same religious order. None of these later buildings ever looked exactly like their prototypes, and subtle changes in detail and form were common.

Hurx's examination of the paper record yields new insights regarding the role and purpose of drawings, with all the attendant matters of fixing scale and sizing up. Drawing building plans and elevations on the same sheet and at the same scale, an invention associated with Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, was a practice not widely employed in the Low Countries until the seventeenth century. Hurx, however, makes reference to a long tradition of this practice in Germany. Artists also had a significant role in defining the appearance of finished buildings through their perspectival imaginings of proposed structures, such as the one made of the church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem in 1518, attributed to the painter Pieter Gerritsz.

In a book that offers such a well-constructed and finely detailed analysis of the building trade and that challenges several assumptions about the architect's role, it is heartening to see connections drawn between the many figures involved in the Low Countries' building boom and the reinforcement of this region's central position within a Europe-wide exchange of goods and ideas. The reach of designer-architects into other spheres and the concomitant involvement of other specialists in the act of building, caused by the demands of patrons and by changing iconography, profoundly affected both exterior and interior designs. The powerful individuals and institutions facilitating artistic enterprise—the nobility, the church, wealthy town councils—worked to override the power and influence of craft guilds in their cities. Thus, while the guild of master masons took credit for the ground plans of Antwerp's new town hall, guild members also admitted that the façade was the work of sculptors. Hurx points to significant examples of craftsmen skilled in one trade but leading workshops in others, like the architect Laureys Keldermans, who managed a segment of the large trade in the production of carved wooden altarpieces in Antwerp. There is room for further work on practitioners and the reasons they took such commercial risks. Key to this discussion may be the shared use of materials across different kinds of production, as well as the creative adaptation of materials and technologies to different purposes. New patterns and incentives for these enterprises will emerge as scholars continue to conduct technical analyses of diverse artifacts across the late medieval and early modern periods.


Richard A. Goldthwaite, The Building of Renaissance Florence: An Economic and Social History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Richard A. Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).