Gabion: Retained Writing on Architecture
Normal Font Size | Increase Font Size
  About GabionArticlesBooksVaultsContactEmail AlertsSearchStoreHome
 


The legacy of Lasdun

Page 1 Page 2

That list of honours excludes another masterwork, the University of East Anglia. Many hands have been at work on it since Lasdun first laid it out in the early 1960s - and fortunately most of them have been good hands, including Norman Foster, Rick Mather and John Miller - but it is still Lasdun's configuration of ziggurats, like a tight formation of battleships, that catches the eye and the imagination. It cannot be long until this, too, is listed. He did less well in Cambridge, however - his uncompleted Fitzwilliam College is humdrum, he had big trouble relating to the street at the overhanging rear of his Christ's College extension, and we can only be thankful that he never built the intrusive laboratory towers he proposed for the university's science site in 1961, for all that they were a fascinating reinterpretation of the English Perpendicular style of the King's College Chapel. No, Cambridge and Lasdun never really hit it off. Apart from a rare overseas commission, the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg, (1973-1990) London was his true milieu.

If, in London, the immaculately-maintained white modern-classical pavilion of the Royal College of Physicians is his best, then his 1956 Keeling House in Bethnal Green - left to decay for years, but now restored - shows an equivalent breadth of vision. By coincidence, on the day of Lasdun's death, I had been to see Keeling House with the young architect of its restoration, Stephen Marshall of Munkenbeck and Marshall. Lasdun had been fully involved, and liked to sit discussing the project with the builders, sipping tea in the site hut. As a "cluster block" - four slender towers grouped around a freestanding stair and lift tower - the design is extraordinarily clever, and influences the latest generation of architects in their quest for new forms of city living. Happy though he was to see it restored, Lasdun regretted that it was no longer going to be housing for the poor - instead, a fashionable developer has taken it on to sell the two-bedroom maisonettes as modish pieds a terre, close as they are to the City of London.

For all that, Lasdun approved Marshall's delicate new glass entrance lobby to Keeling House, and supported him in his (so far rejected) scheme to make a new penthouse right on top, using up redundant space where water tanks had been. The planners of course object, on the grounds that it is now a historic, listed building. Lasdun found this nonsensical, and was shortly going to accompany Marshall to shake them by the throat. "It won't be the same without the old boy there," says Marshall wistfully. Too true - we've been denied the rare pleasure of Lasdun arguing for alterations to one of his buildings, when usually - as with the National Theatre - he resisted any such thing. Whatever he did, he did with passion.

Ah, the National. Any big public cultural project that takes years to complete is bound to be unfashionable for its first few decades. Now, aged 25, it is coming into its own. But an unlikely admirer early on was Sir John Betjeman, poet and arch-traditionalist, who saw it being built in 1973 and wrote directly to Lasdun. "I gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St. Paul's to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many angles...it has that inevitable and finished look that great work does." The modernists - Sir Nikolaus Pevsner among them - weren't so sure. Pevsner thought Lasdun was a dangerous post-modernist. Lasdun turned conventional responses on their head.

So time's finally up for this stubborn, arrogant, charming and brilliant architect. He always claimed that his best buildings possessed a spirit that would see them through. He was right. You might still not like this tough, tectonic, highly intellectual architecture. You may never come round to it. But if you don't, your children and grandchildren will. I can guarantee it. This stuff has staying power.

Page 1 Page 2

Bookmark and Share