The architect in an age of scepticism

Lasdun’s London legacy

Irina Davidovici

Lasdun was a paradoxical figure. Outwardly a grand master at the core of the architectural establishment, his position vis a vis a slightly younger British post-war avant-garde seems to have been fraught with insecurity. One of the last protagonists of heroic modernism, his work nevertheless weighed the possibilities of a return to the historical city. His perceived disquiet at the unravelling of grand narratives manifested itself in the title of the 1984 anthology Architecture in an Age of Scepticism, in whose preface he wrote:

Whatever direction architecture may take and whatever the immediate future may bring, the testimony of those who have borne the brunt of the post-war period will remain crucial. They have much to hand on to their successors; we all have to evolve and develop but, in doing so, we must preserve intact those creative certainties which make architecture possible.1

The need for “creative certainties” ran counter to the current climate, in which the postmodern relativism was gaining ground – clearly much to Lasdun’s concern, who might have perceived it as a sort of lassitude. Manifestly in reaction against the proliferation of theory, with an emphasis on practitioners’ ways of thinking, the collection was an appeal to the material and social dimensions of architecture. To this end Lasdun compiled the projects and writings of his contemporaries in the twilight of modernism – Leslie Martin, Giancarlo de Carlo, Aldo van Eyck, Jorn Utzon, Ralph Erskine – as well as younger inquisitive voices, from the Smithsons to James Stirling. With characteristic generosity Lasdun included contributions from emerging architects that had hardly experienced the hardships of post-war reconstruction, Christopher Alexander, Edward Cullinan, Evans Shalev and a youthful Norman Foster.

The idea of an inter-generational dialogue seems equally relevant in considering Lasdun’s mid-term legacy and the bearing of his work on London architecture today. To this end, a number of contemporary practitioners and writers on architecture – of different architectural generations or ideological inclinations – have been invited to define their attitudes in relation to Lasdun’s work, specifying which projects or elements are the most meaningful and why. The various responses all point to a common attitude: a deference that is not unconditional, but the result of deliberations through prolonged exposure to buildings that are part of the city’s everyday life. These generous and probing contributions testify to the continuing relevance of this oeuvre as a reference for London architecture.

Peter St John, Caruso St John Architects

I find his [Lasdun’s] buildings powerful. Britain has never had a very deep connection to modernism, he was the exception. The buildings are well mannered and work well in the city, while also being strong objects. Like a lot of architecture from the 60s and 70s, they now feel democratic and socially generous. All those steps and open terraces work as a kind of podium for looking outwards, making the space around them feel charged.

A favourite of mine is the apartment building on Green Park. It's a beautiful thing, with its broad horizontal lines and unusual vertical rhythm having some kind of symbiotic relationship to the park.

Adrian Forty, Emeritus, UCL

The quality of the concrete at the National Theatre is outstanding - the high water mark of exposed in-situ concrete in Britain, there's been nothing like it before or since.  To produce board-marked concrete of that standard now is unthinkable, with the same surface finish continuous inside and out.  Many architects since have looked the National Theatre as an example of what was once possible, but for some the result was too macho, and if one might learn from the exquisite finishes, the challenge was, while using concrete, to avoid making it into a demonstration of brute strength. 'Delicate' it is not.

Edward Jones, Dixon Jones Architects

The case for valuing Lasdun might rest on his successful introduction of a modern architectural agenda into historically loaded situations without either compromise to his design or damage to the place. The flats in Green Park, the Royal College of Surgeons in Regents Park and the National Theatre on the Thames achieve this difficult balancing act, an act that few have since achieved in London.

Denys Lasdun had a great compositional and sculptural talent which was not eclipsed by the enthusiasm for technology and/or celebrity that attached itself to the following generation.  As a student, I will never forget the model of his splendid student housing UEA of 1962, which was not let down by its later realisation. But then again, it has been wisely renovated and revalued by the University as a continuing epitaph to Lasdun.

Jonathan Sergison, Sergison Bates Architects

I grew up with Denys Lasdun’s work and I hold it in high regard, particularly the National Theatre, which as a boy I would pass on my journeys from Waterloo station to the city centre. Attending performances in this building, I found its architectural expression powerful and demanding. During my studies Lasdun was not talked about much – times had changed and his position was under assault from alternatives to the hardline modernism he was seen to represent. I really came to appreciate his work through the book he edited entitled Architecture in an Age of Scepticism.2 I found myself looking more carefully at the numerous buildings he had realized in central London, particularly the Royal College of Physicians building in Regents Park and the SOAS College of Education buildings, a few minutes away from where I lived in London for many years. I observed them over extended periods of time but I find Lasdun’s work too personal to interpret easily.

The College of Education reads as an urban block, adopting an equivalence with the older, dominant Georgian terraced streets of Bloomsbury. Its north east corner makes an explicit reference to the adjacent building by [Thomas and Lewis] Cubitt. The building is unquestioningly modern but makes concessions to its context, sure proof that Lasdun was not in denial of pre-modern architecture. I have often found myself looking at this corner and wondered how it might be possible to achieve something similar.

Tony Fretton, Tony Fretton Architects

Lasdun is significant but puzzling. An outsider to the architectural circles of the time, he felt himself to be an outsider to the British establishment, despite gaining commissions for significant buildings. For me, the issues in his work are rather too personal. But there are moments in the National Theatre that relate very strongly to the city, for example where Somerset;House;across the river is pictorialised. The auditoria I also find very charming. His form making and composition are exceptional and uplifting.

Biba Dow, Dow Jones Architects

The National Theatre remains one of my favourite buildings and a place we return to; encountering the National Theatre across Waterloo Bridge is one of the most exciting moments in London. It manages to combine a powerful formal language with a visceral material presence. The spaces it creates both inside and around it establish a theatrical engagement with the life of the city, anticipating and recreating dramatic encounters within its foyers, on the terraces outside, across the river. This is created as much by spaces for social interaction as it is by the deliberate blankness of facade, which reminds me of another striking building with an arresting relationship to the river, now sadly demolished, the 1965 Nine Elms Cold Store. It was a much simpler building, but shared a bold directness and material presence. Lasdun combined powerful architectural forms with a clear constructional strategy, embedded in ideas about space. The curved brick form of the lecture theatre at the Royal College of Physicians, the National Theatre’s board-marked concrete, the sleek granite balconies of 26 St James Place all create a rich and tangible material form that seems forgotten in this era of façadism and thinness. Lasdun described detailing not as surface but as "concerned with the intellectual texture of the whole design and its consistency”. I find this idea very exciting.

Alun Jones, Dow Jones Architects

Most interesting about Lasdun is the tension between a supposed modernist aesthetic and a more nuanced and sophisticated reading of the city and its festive structures. On the face of it his buildings look like a lot of post war English buildings, but to experience them is quite a different matter. He understands movement in and around his buildings and relates it back to the ritualistic content of the projects. The staircase of the Royal College of Physicians is both a spatial and circulatory device but also provides a way of understanding the deeper ceremonial activities of the institution. Similarly, the way the form of the lecture theatre deviates from the constraints of the Cartesian plan and emerges into the park both as form and matter - in this case brick - takes the interpretation of the building away from a superficial modernist reading.

The relationship between matter and character that he plays out in the foyer spaces of the National Theatre is really fascinating. This building is ostensibly only made of one material - concrete - but by handling it differently, he creates a whole range of places. The foyer can feel intimate and also simultaneously part of the metropolis. The dominance of concrete creates a contiguous background to the pageant of daily life, and despite the brutality of the material, he elevates it to accommodate this difference. These ideas of a heightened reading of matter and how architecture needs to be more than just about function is the basis of what we have been trying to achieve through our work, so the parallels and significance are tangible.

David Kohn, David Kohn Architects

Lasdun is a somewhat enigmatic figure. His projects are not popularly referenced, in the manner of a Stirling, yet his work is an immutable presence in post-war British architecture culture. For me, his work demonstrates the highest level of synthesis of the conditions of a project, from context to formal language, material to detail. The built results are at once radical yet calmly of their place.

We were approached to design an apartment building in Marylebone, for which we referred to Lasdun's 26 St James's Place. What appealed was Lasdun's ability to make a building that was unashamedly contemporary in its interior arrangement and appearance, but nonetheless has the urban presence of a classical palazzo. We aspired to achieve the same balance of new possibilities for living with the sense of cultural rootedness that the traditional building type inspires.

Hugh Strange, Hugh Strange Architects

I see Lasdun as a great British architect of his generation: perhaps not sophisticated or wily like Stirling and the Smithsons, but certainly substantial. The projects I’ve visited and spent time with, particularly the National Theatre and the Royal College of Physicians, are really very good, and at least one of these two would sit in my top five UK buildings of the 20th Century. I oscillate between which I think is the better.

My reservation regarding his influence on my own work is to do with its heroic character, to which I can’t quite relate. However, I do enjoy the way the buildings seem simultaneously self-contained and yet very much about their context - this is a very interesting characteristic and one that I aspire to. I am also drawn to his focus on structure, though he counterpoints structure with movement through space, while I’m a bit more interested in staying still! Although not necessarily the direct reference, I was very aware of his NT structural fins while designing my own house. Transformed from in-situ concrete to CLT [cross-laminated timber].

Stephen Taylor, Stephen Taylor Architects

Lasdun’s early work with Tecton reflected the principal ideas of the International Style, which were meant to advance architecture as a social art. Originally intended for working-class residents, these buildings attempted to resolve social issues through functional segregation, creating an isolating environment and discouraging community. However, his work after the war and particularly his cluster blocks, an architectural attempt to invent a type of high-rise block designed to replace run-down terraced housing, constitute his most fundamental contribution to the city.  Keeling House, with its four clustered blocks looking onto each other and each dwelling being a ‘small house’ rather than a flat, similar inside to those found in the East End house, reflects best my appreciation. These ‘small houses’ are grouped around a communal tower, encouraging social interaction between dwellers, whilst the clustered blocks themselves express a similar sentiment at the urban scale. Lasdun imagined that this design would allow the life of the city to continue on the inside. With private front doors opening onto collective ‘foyers’ and neighbours interacting in communal areas in course of common daily errands, the housing nurtures a sense of community, not unlike the ones found in its East End neighbourhoods. With this work Lasdun offers a critical view on the principles of the Athens Charter.

My own ongoing interests in practice and architectural research reflect Lasdun’s attempts to create a sense of place and belonging, allowing a more intimate character, similar to the feeling of being in the street. To this day, with its rough finishes and deliberate lack of refinement, Keeling House retains its relevance. Its engagement with the city and exploration of alternative ways of living together enthusiastically questions, tirelessly challenges and endlessly imagines architectural possibilities.

Daniel Rosbottom, DRDH Architects

Like Hawksmoor and Soane before him, Lasdun had a singularly inventive formal and spatial imagination, engaged with the life and form of the city, and which allows him to stand with them as one of London’s most important architects. His architecture offers a model of strong but situated modernity, confident enough to reference the forms and histories of the buildings and landscapes that surround it without being beholden to them. In 1966, the same year that Complexity and Contradiction was published, Pevsner described his Royal College of Physicians building as ‘postmodern’, marking its critical importance in the process of renegotiating modernity’s re-engagement with the idea of place and the value of the city as found. 3Lasdun’s characterful architecture, able to oscillate between the classical allusions of the Royal College of Physicians, and the almost geological strata of the National Theatre, has been a strong on-going influence on the work of DRDH. The strong but sensual forms and materials of the Royal College of Physicians, which so eloquently rhyme with the neighbouring terraces of Nash while mediating its relationship to Regents Park through the dark brick hump of its theatre, was a key reference point for our library and concert hall in Bodø. Meanwhile the spatial inventiveness and clarity of his apartments on St James Place, with its innovative 3:2 section, is a model for a current housing project. The character of Lasdun’s work succeeds in being, at once, abstract and figurative. His enjoyment of the body moving through space and as the definer of space, whether it be the standing column or the processing figure, has had a profound influence upon the way in which we think about architecture as an unfolding, atmospheric experience that is both part of and enriching for the wider city.

Stephen Bates, Sergison Bates architects

I always remember a quote from Lasdun: “The city is like a venerable old sock with holes requiring darning.” I think of him as a very principled architect who embraced Modernism as an artist might do, with complete rigour but also with a level of humanity (even though society might not have been ready for it!). The tendency towards monumentality in his work also strikes me and when combined with his instinct of space as a continuous landscape both ideas resonate with the idea of city – at least the idea I might have of a good and vibrant city. The Royal College of Physicians is the seminal architectural project representing Lasdun’s idea of architecture as ‘urban landscape’, the relationship between the institution and the city and his acknowledgement of both classical and modern traditions. It was important to Jonathan and I in the early days and I think remains for us a constant reference. Lasdun’s expressive form-making, his approach to decorum and dignity within and without, and his constructional rigour are inspirational.

Our paper ‘Useful Reference’, published by WBW in 2005, explained the motivation behind our work not as the pursuit of newness or originality for its own sake, but as being part of an existing and evolving culture of architecture.4

Alberto Ponis, Sardinia

From 1960 until 1964, when he set up practice in Sardinia, Alberto Ponis worked as an architect in London. After a work interval at Ernö Goldfinger, he moved to the office of Denys Lasdun, a formative experience he describes below. Ponis photographed the Royal College of Physicians on a wet autumn day shortly after its completion and his grainy, atmospheric photographs of the building in the mist appeared repeatedly in Lasdun’s publications, contributing to the public image of his architecture.

The following excerpt was translated by Ponis himself from an autobiographical essay.

In Lasdun’s office I followed the projects from the very beginning, and we discussed them every day over drawings and balsa wood models. He taught me never to stop at the first solution, to continue working on the most promising idea with obstinacy and patience. This was for me a fundamental and privileged school. When after much work the project finally looked “healthy”, as he used to say, I felt a surge of joy and emotion, even for the humblest project. This is the legacy left to me by Denys, master and friend.5

1 Denys Lasdun, “Preface”, Architecture in an Age of Scepticism, A Practitioners’ Anthology, Denys Lasdun (ed.), Heinemann : London, 1984, 7.

2 Denys Lasdun (ed.), Architecture in an Age of Scepticism, A Practitioners’ Anthology, Heinemann : London, 1984.

3 Nikolaus Pevsner, „The Anti-Pioneers“, in Pevsner on Art and Architecture: The Radio Talks, Stephen Games ed., London 2002, 299.

4 Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates, „Hilfreiche Referenzen“, werk, bauen + wohnen no. 5, 2005, 26-31.

5 Alberto Ponis, Storie di case e ambiente, Skira, Milan, 2003, p.14

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