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William JR Curtis: Seminal works transcend their time

William JR Curtis

Works of quality and depth go beyond lazy historical fictions

The most substantial buildings in the history of architecture transcend the period in which they were created. They refuse to fit movements and cannot be accounted for by ‘isms’. They address the issues of their time while extending an immediate tradition and drawing upon several phases of the past. They crystallise a range of architectural and social issues while opening up new directions to those who follow. They are innovatory, even revolutionary, but they also take architecture back to fundamentals. In a word, they are ‘seminal’.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) on the east side of Regent’s Park (1959-64) by Denys Lasdun is just such a building. The architect had to interpret the functions, rituals and traditions of a hallowed institution four and a half centuries old, and harmonise with Nash’s neo-Classical terraces without mimicking them. Lasdun defined the College as a precinct and sequence of airy and well lit spaces around a rectangular spiral stair and the focal point of the ‘Censor’s Room’. The main hall supplied a gallery of historical portraits and framed views of the historical setting. Receding levels created a social theatre at the heart of the institution and led to the library housing Harvey’s diagrams of blood circulation.

The honorific spaces of the College are contained in a floating rectangular superstructure clad in off-white terrazzo mosaic. This recalls Lasdun’s admiration for Le Corbusier and for classicism, especially the work of Hawksmoor. More mundane functions such as the offices to the rear, or the curved hump of the auditorium, are clad in blue/mauve engineering brick. A third material − naked concrete − is used for the twin services towers which suggest the funnels of a ship. The building floats above the site, its horizontals separated from structural supports by gaps of shadow. Lasdun insisted that: ‘Every building has at its heart an image, a generating idea, which must express itself through every part and through every detail.’

As a section suggests, and as experience confirms, the College develops a ritualistic procession or promenade architecturale through compressed and expanding spaces of varying intensity. As a student, Lasdun read Geoffrey Scott’s Architecture of Humanism (1914) which stressed the experience through empathy of space, structure and movement. While designing the College he was obsessed with a painting by Paul Klee (Uncomposed Objects in Space, 1929) evoking dynamic and interlocking planes. In his earlier Hallfield Primary School, Paddington (1951) or Bethnal Green Clusters (1952-57), Lasdun explored biological analogies in concept and plan, stratification in section and elevation. The RCP fused the classicising, modern and organic elements in his universe in a statement of high intensity.

The building incorporates other themes such as ‘growth and change’, analogies with circulation in the human body, and the notion of the individual building as a ‘piece of city’. Lasdun’s reading of the historical context went much deeper than the facades of Nash Terraces, to the urban grain of outdoor spaces and the sense of place. He fused the Baroque processional stair of Hawksmoor’s Easton Neston (1695-1705), with the post-Cubist space, free plan curves and hovering box of Le Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse (1930-31), another seminal work. The stratifications in section recalled the rhythm of classical mouldings and opened the way to the interlocking platforms and towers of the National Theatre (1963-76). The College was a pivotal work, looking back but also forward. In it the architect crystallised many of his central principles.

Lasdun referred to the platforms and terraces of his ‘urban landscapes’ of the 1960s as ‘strata’ as if to suggest a geological analogy. ‘Nature’, or at least an idea of it, was explored in the artificial hills and valleys of the University of East Anglia (1962-68) and in the social platforms of the National Theatre, which provided an outdoor auditorium with the Thames and St Paulʼs as backdrop. The RCP was inaugurated 50 years ago and this year is also Denys Lasdun’s centenary (born 8 September 1914). The building continues to impress with the freshness of its ideas and the power of its forms. Works of this quality and depth cannot be reduced to lazy historical fictions such as ‘the New Brutalism’. In my view the Royal College of Physicians is Lasdun’s masterpiece and maintains a key position as a seminal work in the universal history of 20th-century architecture.

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