No quiet life for the master of reticence

An Architecture of Invitation
February 24, 2006

Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite's biography of Colin St John Wilson, the architect of the British Library at St Pancras, is an astutely observed, well-documented analysis supported by carefully chosen illustrations, in particular plans and sections, which leave the reader with an understanding of the richness attainable in modern architecture.

For Wilson's design is probably the most humane of all our knighted architects and stands out for its reticence. If the Prince of Wales had not taken such an unnecessary dislike to the British Library, where he thought the humanities reading room looked "like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police", Wilson might not be known to the general public at all.

Yet any reader who holds the library's leather-bound door handles as they might the spine of an old volume from its shelves will know how wrong the Prince is.

Wilson's architectural career falls into two parts - first the angry young man, with the black leather jacket, and then the avuncular philosopher, with the corduroy suit and red scarf. In the first, he was one of the Le Corbusian postwar revolutionaries in the London County Council's architects' department before going to shake up the sleepy architecture school at Cambridge University; and in the second, from about the time he met and subsequently married the American architect M. J. (Mary Jane) Long, he was a disciple of Alvar Aalto or, as the authors say, "the gentler processes inherent in making architecture".

Le Corbusier's Cartesian architecture offered Wilson a clean and rational approach that soon manifested itself in his work for the LCC where Sir Leslie Martin was in charge. At the Bentham Road estate in Hackney (1950-55), the tightly planned maisonettes arranged in slab blocks were a clear homage to the master's Unité d'Habitation, in Marseilles, which Wilson had visited during construction in 1950. But the Hereford Square flats, done for the developer John de Vere Hunt in 1955, were much more suited to London - an uncompromising and self-assured essay in high-density, medium-rise urbanism. It impressed Sir Denys Lasdun so much that he pinned a rose to the front door.

In 1956, Martin moved from the LCC to take up the chair in architecture at Cambridge and almost immediately invited Wilson to join him in teaching and in practice. There Wilson developed what the authors call "an architectural grammar and tectonic... based on masonry and archetypes of wall, court, podium and hanging garden". In a series of small buildings, including his house on Grantchester Road (1962-64), and in larger ones done in collaboration with Martin and Patrick Hodgkinson, such as Gonville and Caius's Harvey Court (1957-62), Wilson made this language his own. The jewel among these, as an exercise in spatial complexity, geometrical planning and brutalist tectonics, must be the extension to the Cambridge School of Architecture (1957-58, with Alex Hardy). It is an 11m cube, and was described by Reyner Banham as "one of the most eclectic designs ever to be packed into an anonymous-looking brick box".

Wilson's "supper-at-Emmaus moment" came in 1957 when Aalto, on receiving the Royal Institute of British Architects Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, spoke of the "dictatorship" that had taken over modern architecture. This dictator was Le Corbusier, and although Wilson was not to abandon him immediately, he adopted, in Aalto's words, an architecture more "organically suited to the little man in the street". On the domestic scale, this was achieved almost immediately at the Cornford House, in Cambridge (1965-66). As eclectic, complex and tectonic as the Cambridge cube, it marks the change to his work that his "Emmaus moment" and his new relationship with Long precipitated. But it is not such houses that the little man in the street usually experiences, but the major public buildings.

The British Library dominated the second half of Wilson's career, including his return to Cambridge as professor between 1975 and 1989, although the "tirade of criticism" that followed Prince Charles's inopportune remarks was both hurtful and damaging. In understanding the success of this building, we need to understand Wilson the philosopher, which is really the hub of Menin and Kite's argument. Throughout the book, the authors draw attention to the aedicule, whether it is the table under which Wilson, as a child, sought refuge, or Antonella da Mesina's 1475 painting of St Jerome in his Study , a precedent for the scholars' desks in the humanities reading room. The authors suggest that, in Wilson's work, there is an "ethical line" that, as they say, "helps us make sense of ourselves in the world, 'by stirring intimations of meaning with vivid spatial experience as though they were the same thing'". And here, perhaps, is the secret of the British Library, of its accessibility and, at least for this user, its success.

In a project that took more than 25 years, Wilson demonstrated a lifetime of learning engendered by the extraordinary circle of bright minds within which he, Cambridge educated and a bishop's son, always seemed to move.

Through Banham, he had become, in the early 1950s, part of the Independent Group, which sprang out of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Many of his Cambridge students were destined to become professors or prominent and knighted architects, including a president of the RIBA and a Royal Gold Medallist. That Wilson himself has not been awarded the Royal Gold Medal is perhaps surprising, although he has twice been nominated.

The knighthood that followed the completion of the British Library in 1998, and bestowed, ironically, by Prince Charles, was perhaps automatic. But such an award does not recognise the breadth and integrity of his contribution to architectural practice, philosophy and education. Buried deep in the copious endnotes to this book is a quote from Michael Sorkin, the American critic. Comparing the British Library with the Millennium Dome (which, of course, is a tent structure, not a dome), he wonders how "Wilson had endured so much abuse in the pursuit of something so fine when this egregious piece of junk culture breezed right through. Cruel Britannia".

Cruel Britannia, indeed.

Neil Jackson is chair in architecture, Liverpool University.

An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson

Author - Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 341
Price - £60.00
ISBN - 0 7546 3783 2

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