A wordless rigour

Barnabas Calder

Denys Lasdun spoke, by preference, not in words but through his buildings. When interviewed in later years about his largely mysterious role in the closing-down of MARS, the British delegation to CIAM, he showed a puzzled indifference to the ‘shifting sands’ of written architectural theory and self-proclaimed movements. He told those closest to him that he wished his buildings could be allowed to speak for themselves – he disliked, as he put it, ‘having to mediate architecture through the written word.’ The things he did say about his projects and his approach have a studiedly vague, poetic quality, evoking landlocked harbours, rock strata or ancient ruins. It is far from the technical- or sociological-sounding theoretical outpourings of the Smithsons.

This lack of a clearly articulated theoretical position might seem to suggest a vulnerability to confusion or whimsy in his design thinking. Nothing could be further from the truth. In marked contrast to the open-endedness of his words, Lasdun’s architecture has a rare level of rigour. It is hard to imagine aspects of his buildings being changed without detriment to the whole. As the poet John Betjeman said of the National Theatre, ‘it has that inevitable and finished look great work does.’ Lasdun’s precast concrete systems are satisfyingly full-blooded, each gutter and supporting fin of his student residences at Christ’s College, Cambridge having the utmost solidity and clarity as a separate component. His in situ concrete has none of the intoxicating whimsy of Paul Rudolph’s; Lasdun’s conforms to rectilinear logic rather than exploiting the material’s capacity for accommodating aesthetic irregularity. In Lasdun’s designs and executed projects there is no bodging and no improvisation. They can on occasion be almost overwhelming in their controlled power and solemn restraint.

Through his formative years, from his education at the Architectural Association in the early 1930s to his golden years in the 1960s, Lasdun explored a wide range of influences, from Hawksmoor to Le Corbusier, from Mies to the theatre at Epidaurus. He hero-worshipped Lubetkin during his years with Tecton (1938-49), and even Hallfield School, his 1951 rebellion against the gridded constraints of Tecton’s housing estates, was conducted in the material language of the charming pavilions on Tecton’s own earlier estates. In the 1950s Lasdun engaged with the Brutalists for a period, though never joining them in any formal way. He also took an interest in the picturesque Townscape movement, playing with ‘special’ roofs at Fitzwilliam College (designed 1958-64, built from 1964) and in early designs for the Royal College of Physicians (designed 1958-61, built 1961-64). Louis Kahn’s servant and served spaces found their way into Lasdun’s thinking as they did into that of most architects of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Perhaps the most important and lasting influence of all in these learning years was Lasdun’s collaboration with Ove Arup and his office, especially Peter Dunican who worked with Lasdun and his team time and again, resolving the engineering challenge represented by the showy cantilevers at the Royal College of Physicians and discussing the nitty gritty of cost-conscious prefabrication systems at the grand scale of the University of East Anglia. This collaboration helped make the real processes of concrete structure and construction perhaps the richest inspiration and the most consistent source of rigour and discipline in Lasdun’s designs.

Lasdun acknowledged owing much to Le Corbusier, whose freely-cantilevered sections were to be developed by Lasdun into an entire architectural approach based on terraces, decks and cutaways standing on such columns were needed. Many have seen Lasdun’s debt to Le Corbusier as extending to the board-marked in situ concrete at his masterpiece, the National Theatre (designed 1964-9, built 1969-76). In reality, throughout Lasdun’s career, his detailing – whatever the material – always had far more in common with the perfectionism of Mies, whom Lasdun visited on his honeymoon to Chicago, than with the artfully mal foutu mess of Le Corbusier’s post-war board-shuttering and brickwork.The influence of other architects became less important to Lasdun from around 1960, as he grew ever more confident in his own architectural language, and began to derive more and more of his inspiration from bringing together the technical requirements and possibilities of late-modern architecture with the specifics of the client institution. By the end of the 1950s Lasdun was lengthening the client discussion phase of his design process. Rather than merely drawing up a brief, Lasdun talked to his clients, and observed their activities, until he felt he had a true understanding of their needs and nature, before he started on the design work in earnest. In his famous words of 1965, ‘our job is to give the client, on time and on cost, not what he wants, but what he never dreamed he wanted and, when he gets it, he recognises it as something he wanted all the time.’

This emphasis on the client might sound like a recipe for bland pleasantness but, whilst always aiming to meet the user’s needs satisfactorily, Lasdun’s preoccupation with understanding the institution led in fact to some controversial architectural outcomes. In particular, for a series of institutional buildings, he expressed in his architecture a sense which he had got from the briefing processes that they were, for all the 1960s rhetoric of openness, inward-looking and self-consciously elite. At the Royal College of Physicians the rear, to a busy street, is of black brick with horizontal windows and a blank street-front at eye-level. Amidst the white stucco and vertical windows of its neighbours this comes across as an aggressively anti-contextual statement of the private nature of much of the College’s activity at the time; it reinforces the exclusivity of its Pall Mall gentlemen’s club atmosphere. To be inside feels all the more special for the fact that the rear public face is so unwelcoming.

He repeated this exclusiveness when building the end-wall of the University of London’s precinct, a sort of Seagram Building turned on its side under the planning influence of Leslie Martin, running the entire length of the street in gloriously remorseless bronze-anodized aluminium and dark glass. At its foot is a concrete moat, punctuated by lecture theatres like defensive outworks. Marching implacably along the roof are five service towers of spectacularly excessive size for the modest requirements of the offices below.

The most shockingly candid of Lasdun’s architectural portraits, however, was at Christ’s College Cambridge. Working in the archives for my book I found that Lasdun’s building was one move in a long-standing chess game between nearby Cambridge colleges to gain control of the land which lay between them. Lasdun’s building was criticised even whilst still on the drawing board for the magnificent hostility of its street front: seven storeys of overhanging, windowless concrete, topped once again by service towers, towering over fragile-looking glass shops. The Sublime cliff of angry concrete was a clear portrait of the exclusivity and introversion of 1960s Cambridge colleges, and a clear unfriendly gesture to the college which owned the land across the narrow street from it. Sadly it has since been covered by a new building squashed into the street front in the 1990s to cloak Lasdun’s: the architectural statement has proved too strong for the college.

These magnificently strong architectural statements seem to rejoice in the chunky power – aesthetic and structural – of reinforced concrete, and to explore the architectural thrills to be found in overwhelming Piranesian effect. They were never going to be to everyone’s taste, but of their kind these Sublime monuments (each of them for institutions important enough to justify prominent interventions in the city) are hard to beat.

The rear of Lasdun’s block at Christ’s disappeared because it was out of fashion. Much of Lasdun’s other work, most spectacularly the National Theatre, came instead to even greater prominence with the Postmodern backlash against 1960s architecture. Lasdun’s masterpiece became Britain’s favourite lightning rod for hatred of concrete and hatred of grand Modernist projects, ferociously attacked by people ranging from Leon Krier and the Prince of Wales through to taxi drivers.

Lasdun’s distress at this generally uninformed criticism was heightened by the level of effort that he knew he and his team had put into each building. From the early 1960s Lasdun had been warning clients that if they wanted to start building as soon as possible he was not the architect for them – he needed time to get to know them, and a lot of time to design, redesign and refine. After the initial discussions with the client Lasdun would typically produce two outline schemes – ‘diagrams’ as he called them, to make clear that they were not designs to be discussed aesthetically but organisational dispositions to be discussed practically and in terms of the institutional relationship between parts.

‘Scheme A’ tended to be the more conventional, showing what the clients might have been imagining and expecting, where ‘Scheme B’, time and again, is the exciting one with the unexpected twist (the Royal College of Physicians’ internalised courtyard after a Scheme A conventional courtyard, or the National Theatre’s sweeping open stage after Scheme A’s comparatively mainstream picture-frame stage). The winning early scheme (the clients always chose Scheme B once Lasdun had explained its advantages) would then be refined in planning terms, until the client and the architects were happy with it. At this point the design process would be taken into the hands of the office, with little further discussion with the client.

From around 1962 drawings gave way to models as the primary design tool within the office, with a full-time model maker working on quick, rough design models during the day and presentation models in the evening. The spaces roughed out in discussion with the client would be tweaked and modelled and retweaked, adjusted and refined through dozens of iterations of model, discussion, drawing, and new model. Lasdun himself neither modelled nor drew beyond rough 6B scribbles on the drawings of his team, but his collaborators are remarkably clear in their memory that he retained close personal control of what they were doing. As the overall form of the project matured, detailing too would be tested through numerous models and drawings, up to 1:1 for important features like the meeting of glazing and concrete in the National Theatre.

Despite the considerable differences between Lasdun’s buildings in shape and organisation – differences which arose from the specificity of his designs to the client institution – favoured construction ideas would reappear with progressive refinements in each successive building: concrete horizontal decks, pleasing to Lasdun’s politics in their democratic lack of facade and unhierarchical lack of class-based divisions; precast cladding elements supported and bound together by in situ cores which accommodated one-off functions; careful detailing to control rainwater-flow and weathering; deeply-recessed windows to ensure that the subtle matt minerality of concrete wasn’t made to look tawdry by the glaring crystallinity of glass; high-quality finishes specified with care and ever-growing expertise.

Lasdun’s artistic ambition was to achieve one or more buildings that might have a ‘seminal’ quality – the wide influence and fundamental statement of an architectural idea that he himself had found as a student in Le Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse. He was to a large extent robbed of this kind of influence by the timing of late Modernism’s fall from architectural favour. There are clear tributes to the Royal College of Physicians (completed 1964) from Glasgow’s Sheriff’s Court to the Academic Center of De Paul University, Chicago. The University of East Anglia, too, widely published from 1965, was to set off plenty of echoes around the world. The National Theatre, however, finished only in 1976 after years of client delays and industrial action on the building site, was completed too late to influence its successors. As Lasdun’s masterpiece, it marks the end of an old style rather than the origin of a new one. His own late work, much of it still as rigorous and powerful as his 1960s designs, included more than its share of frustrations and nearly-builts, and an exhausting campaign to prevent irreparable damage to his best projects whilst they were out of fashion.

Since his death Lasdun’s body of work has been attracting a growing number of admirers, both amongst architects (Steven Tompkins, Patrick Lynch, Keith Williams and many others in the UK and internationally) and amongst a wider enthusiastic public. His buildings, where not damaged by bad management decisions, are weathering excellently – his practice put a lot of effort into ensuring that they would – and have a solidity and a clarity of structure and construction that stand in timeless, robust contrast to the multi-layered, flimsy-looking claddings of many of the new buildings going up around them.

The thing which Lasdun could never himself put into words or theory – his profound and unrationalised belief in the power of ‘good architecture’ to reach even non-experts – is at last again being vindicated. Lasdun sacrificed a great deal to his defence of aesthetic decisions he could not justify in words. Sometimes he bluffed his way past planning objections using intimidating-sounding technicalities; sometimes he adopted courageously non-negotiable positions like protecting the budget for the National Theatre’s finishes through all the cuts, on threat of resignation. On occasion he did resign, if the outcome wasn’t going to be a building he could be proud of. At the peak of his career he turned down more prestigious work than he accepted, so that his personal design focus could be maintained on the jobs he did take on. He dismissed management consultants whose preliminary findings suggested he would make more money if he sped up his design process. All this he did in the interest of a quality he could not put a name to. Yet as the projects shown in this issue show, however hard he may have found it to put into words what he was doing, Lasdun’s demanding architectural standards produced a body of first-rate work whose rigour and power are uniquely his.

Dr Barnabas Calder is Senior Lecturer in Architecture at the University of Liverpool, and Trustee of the Twentieth Century Society. His recent book Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (Heinemann, 2016) explores the mechanisms and aesthetics of 1960s British architecture at the time of its creation and since. He is producing a complete works of Denys Lasdun, in collaboration with the RIBA and funded by the Graham Foundation.

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