Published  16/05/2005

An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson – book review

An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson – book review

Sarah Menin and her co-author Dr Stephen Kite have produced a remarkable piece of work. The book traces the career of Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson, including his built and unbuilt designs. The authors have selectively assembled a diffuse mosaic running through over 60 years of his dedication to architecture and have also managed to deconstruct a somewhat complex life.

Much of this complexity derives from the fact that Wilson chose to teach and practice, for the most part, in England. A swathe of cultural contradiction, in terms of the provinciality of British architecture between the wars, and in the immediate postwar period, lingers over the scene of Wilson's survival and ultimate triumph here. Perhaps his refusal to accept the offer of the professorship of the school of architecture at Yale is more significant than many would admit, given his revulsion for the emergent postmodernism of Phillip Johnson, and later of Robert Venturi. We can only surmise that Sandy Wilson would have become a greater force in the articulation of architectural theory in the US. As it was, however, he stayed, first in the office of Leslie Martin, and then teaching in the school of architecture at Cambridge University (which he joined forces with others to save from closure recently). His dogged commitment over 35 years to the British Library project, which has survived the time-warping of a generation of British institutional dithering, leaves us with the greatest public building of the 20th century to be realised here.

Wilson, son of a high Episcopalian bishop of Scots descent, was made of stern material. He has been something of a 13th apostle in the European architectural scene for which he opted. In this long, quasi-biblical gospel saga (of modernism), the cross that he carried has been the British Library, on which Wilson's life, career, and family were almost crucified by a rabid and cynical press and indeed, profession. How did they survive? There had to be a Mary Magdalene, and here it was Wilson's brilliant young assistant, and subsequent wife, Mary Jane Long. Possibly thanks to her ingenuity as well as fortitude (with Sandy's other long-term partner Rolfe Kentish), all are now thankfully embarked on the further northern extension of the British Library.

Sarah Menin – known for a previously co-written study of the comparative psychologies of two modern masters, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto – might have been tempted to unravel more deeply Wilson's own psychology; but wisely, despite her initial inclination, she desisted.

There has been no other architectural theorist in Europe or America who has demonstrated the broad intellectual basis of our culture, philosophical or literary, and the extent to which this has impacted on contemporary architecture. For two full generations of architects, Wilson has been both teacher and mentor, and through the case studies of his own designs he was able to give full meaning to these ideas. Superb gems of smaller buildings characterised Wilson's earlier work: the modular extension to the school of architecture, Cambridge University, as well as the Grantchester Road houses and the house in Spring Road for Christopher Cornford. These buildings chart a dramatic evolution, from modular perfectibility, to volumetric equation, to the soaringly tectonic. Perhaps these projects provided hope for the office, a period of gestation before the magnum opus of the British Library. Crucially, MJ Long had played the formative role in the Cornford House, as she was to do latterly in the British Library.

Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite most notably explore the 'familiar' subject of Alvar Aalto through the now unfamiliar theoretical framework of the aesthetic theorist Adrian Stokes, as much admired by Richard Wollheim as he was influential upon the ideas of Wilson. As early as l957 (in a Royal Institute of British Architects Discourse) Wilson had plotted the growth in Aalto of biological concepts, replacing those that were purely mechanical and taken from the l930s. So Aalto's humanist agenda is revealed as enriching his rationalism.

In the final analysis, this book is a powerful and perceptive investigation of the realisation and fulfilment of one architect's driven mission, among others, such as MJ Long and Peter Carolin. There are revealing insights too of the vital, crucial influence that a key female partner in the office can particularly achieve: with the emergent 'figure' of the surrounding space, through her own influence on Wilson's configuration of the building itself, MJ Long saw it through. Wilson's own public concourse, a vital ingredient, was also sustained in this process. In the Introduction, the authors are engaged by the idea of Wilson's ecclesiastical father, but one might be careful not to attribute too much of an 'ethos' to this. In his own Foreword to the book, Professor Juhani Pallasmaa suggests that part of the problem in professional practice for Sandy, was precisely his 'ever deepening intellectual and conceptual interests'. But he confirms to us that 'Wilson and his work express an exemplary humanist and ethical stance'. To survive the tribulations of the 35-year 'war', as he describes the British Library project, what helped Sandy more than ethical stance itself, was a resolution akin to cold steel in its ruthlessness.

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