In Sharp focus
An anthology of Dennis Sharp’s writings brings to light his interest in German culture
Dennis Sharp (obituary AR July 2010) was a man of wide interests in architectural history and theory. He also enjoyed participating in the politics of architecture − at the AA, the RIBA, and various international architectural groupings − but as the son of a builder he never lost his feeling for architectural practice. This is all aptly reflected in the selection of his articles and shorter writings in this compilation.
Subjects range from Muthesius and Mackintosh to Kisho Kurokawa, from Paul Scheerbart to Bruce Goff, and from 1930s cinemas to ‘Utopian Ideals and the Complexity of the Modern City’ − a paper given at the World Association of Chinese Architects Conference in Hangzhou in 2006, 40 years after the date of the earliest essay in the book. But all these diverse subjects come within his own broad definition of the word ‘modern’, which he says was used to qualify ‘architecture’ from the 1830s and as a pair with ‘movement’ by Mackintosh in 1901.
This latitude provided the context for his own non-doctrinaire approach, allowing him to be an enthusiast for the hard-edge quasi-Constructivism of Connell Ward and Lucas while also being an early proponent of rediscovered Expressionism. But there was at least one clear thread running through his work, and a valuable one − his sympathy with German culture and his ability to open it to us. Inspired in part by his revered German-émigré teacher at the AA Arthur Korn and by his national service in Dortmund, he was able to write with authority about figures scarcely known here such as Bruno Taut, Hermann Finsterlin and (especially) Scheerbart, and tirelessly to promote publication of Muthesius’s Das englische Haus in English.
Some of these texts, dating as they do from up to 50 years ago, have been superseded by subsequent work, but on the other hand, they capture vividly the climate of their period, as do the 1970s covers from Architectural Association Quarterly magazine during his editorship and the articles reproduced in facsimile including ‘Space and Performance’, a magisterial historical survey from AR June 1989 (the first in what was to be a long-standing collaboration with graphic designer Malcolm Frost).
Sharp was never closely identified with a particular architectural approach or group, as was Reyner Banham for example, but ‘he was most interested in what one would loosely call the organic strand of the Modern Movement’ (as Paul Finch remarks in his introduction), and he was ready to admit a spiritual dimension to architecture. He had associations with diverse designers such as Santiago Calatrava, Kurokawa, and Paolo Soleri (‘Culture, form and visionary architect meet again at [Soleri’s] Arcosanti as they did in Urbino, Florence, Bath and Chandigarh’), whose work he was happy to promote.
His erudition was phenomenal and there are many names thrown out here without further reference or description, for example in ‘Muthesius and Mackintosh’, about whom one would like to know more. His ceaseless activity enriched architecture and this book is a timely reflection of it.
Sharp Words: Selected Essays of Dennis Sharp
Publishers: Architectural Association Publications