I have been delighted to see the success of “Anatomy of a Building Exhibition” that is still running at the Royal College of Physicians.
In 1964 Denys Lasdun created a modern new headquarters for the 500-year-old Royal College of Physicians in a quiet corner of Regent’s Park. The building is now considered a masterpiece and is Grade I listed. Please visit the Royal College of Physicians before the exhibition ends on February 13th to find out more about this astonishing 1960s building. It’s been an inspiration to generations of architects and designers.
Denys Lasdun’s architecture in general and the Royal College of Physicians building in particular was a strong influence on me. In the 1970’s I was a recently qualified architect already working in London so I went to work with Denys and the years I spent in his office significantly guided me through my subsequent career.
Denys saw architecture primarily as a sculptural art of space, form and light, with its social aspect always ancillary to that and the technological element of no interest at all. The creation of new, authentic forms, the striking of the “noble note”, as he put it, of true architecture, “that can modify the consciousness of the user and the passerby” was his pre-occupation.
I recall an initial concept sketch of the built form that he considered right for the European Investment Bank to be sited on the Kirchberg Plateau in Luxembourg. His free hand drawing resembled a sculpture and is remarkably similar to the eventual building.
His well known remark that an architect’s role was to give his client “not what the client thought he wanted but what he never could have imagined existed” could be applied to himself too: he wasn’t satisfied with a project until it had generated something from him that he could never have imagined existed.
I later learned that when I went to work with him in the mid-70s he was in a prolonged depression. Modernism was out of favour as was concrete, his chosen medium. The best commissions were going to other architects, critics who had championed him were defecting to the postmodern or neo-traditionalist styles and his buildings were being vilified.
His son James, in an article he wrote two years after his fathers death recalling this period writes, “My role was now to supply him with examples of artists who had been forgotten or vilified in their own lifetimes, but achieved immortality after their deaths. Botticelli, I would tell him (he was only interested in the certifiably great), Borromini, Malcolm Lowry (“Who?”). He lay in darkness, listening to his Brahms, brooding on which of Pound’s categories of artist he was going to turn out to have belonged to: the inventors, the masters, or the diluters.”
In spite of this Denys continued to be commissioned for significant buildings including the project for which I joined him. It was one of his largest commissions, the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg and he was working right up to his death.
The current exhibition celebrates a wonderful building in the Royal College of Physicians HQ and reinforces what a remarkable architect Denys Lasdun was. I think he has achieved the immortality he sought.
Please pay the exhibition a visit if you can.