Thursday, 8 October 2015

Lasdun in London

The National Theatre by Denys Lasdun

Denys Lasdun, born in 1914 and alive until 2001, is my favourite British architect (for now, at least, though I can't think of anyone likely to outdo him any time soon). Sometimes classed as a Brutalist for his big, bold, uncompromising buildings, his work is some of the most notable of the British modern movement and he is one of the most distinguished practitioners in the 20th century. I had never considered his work before moving to London, but his buildings there are some of my favourite in the city, so I thought a post about them would be an apt farewell to my former location before moving on to posting about Denmark.

The National Theatre by Denys Lasdun (roof terrace)

'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', said Lasdun in 1965. I think this quote sums up perfectly his balance between the pragmatism required (but not always seen) in architecture and his ability to create artful, imaginative, awe-inspiring work. Lasdun is often quoted on his beliefs about architecture being, above all, an artform and I think few architects have married art and utility so deftly.

The National Theatre (pictured top and above), completed in 1976 and located on London's Southbank, is probably Lasdun's best known building and the first of his that I encountered. It's also the one I have spent the most time in, as in addition to it being a world class venue with three theatres, restaurants, bars and a shop, it's a very generous public space with oodles of seating and free wifi for you to use when you need a central location in which to work or meet. I have only been to one performance there, in the Lyttelton theatre, and it was great: comfortable seats, good sightlines and amazing acoustics meant I could turn all focus away from my surroundings and onto the performance. But while the theatre experience is integral to how the building works, I can't help but feel even more excited by the building's strong presence by the Thames, its horizontal strata, its reach beyond itself into the walkways and arteries of the Southbank and Waterloo Bridge, and its roof terraces offering views across the city. It is complex yet uncomplicated, weighty yet elegant. It's a genuinely amazing building, and while its neighbours - the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and others - are not to be sniffed at, the National Theatre is head and shoulders above them all.

The Royal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun, exterior

But I think I was even more impressed when I visited Lasdun's Royal College of Physicians on Regent's Park, completed for the 500 year old institution in 1964 to sit amid the staid architecture of John Nash which lines the park. A quieter building than the National Theatre, but a massive departure from its surroundings, Lasdun's RCP building is a modernist beauty, giving a nod to its neighbours in scale and colour (it is tiled in creamy white along most of its facade), but otherwise making a bold statement in terms of form and engineering. Robert Platt, former President of the RCP, said in a BBC interview: 'To us, Sir Denys Lasdun stood out as uncompromisingly modern, nevertheless a man who we felt would see the history and its functions of the college as something very real. I asked him whether in modern building methods and materials you could build a building with grace and elegance and charm and he said, “Yes you can, and it needn't be all glass!”' And it is true that Lasdun took a great deal of time to understand the College, its functions and its needs, attending its events and observing its activities in order to tailor make a building totally fit for purpose.

The Royal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun, interior

He also created a modern building that is clad in so much more than just glass. In fact, it is a building with few windows visible from the outside, yet it still draws tonnes of light inside (as you can see in the picture above of the central core of the building). The building is bright and warm, and makes use of dark wood panelling (some of which has moved with the College from each of its homes) and brass railings, tempering cool white tiles and dark engineering brick with rich colours and textures. Structurally it makes the mind boggle: its heavy horizontal white tiled blocks appear to balance on top of a handful of super slender columns (thanks to the steel used inside the concrete, tightened like guitar strings to support the building's weight). It really is an incredible building, worthy of its Grade I listing, and one which the College is clearly very proud of. At the bottom is a video created by the college to commemorate Lasdun's centenery and the building's 50th anniversary to give you a little more insight into Lasdun and his work on RCP.

The Royal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun, exterior

These are just two examples of Lasdun's work in London, but they are the ones I am most familiar with - and fond of. If you find yourself in the city, you can also take a look at apartment buildings in east and west London - Keeling House and St James Place - and you might manage to get inside Lasdun's work for the University of London at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Institute of Education. He has also worked elsewhere in the UK and Europe, and has a whopping 29 buildings listed by English Heritage (could that be a record?). His work is far from universally appreciated (ever the opponent to architecture of any ingenuity or imagination, Prince Charles said the National Theatre looked like a nuclear power station), but really is some of the most accomplished work of the period, in the UK or anywhere else. Lasdun's work in London and elsewhere is challenging and at times confrontational, but is well approaching head on, with a little bravery. It will be worth it :)

The Royal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun, inside projecting out

Video via the Royal College of Physicians, all images author's own