Published  01/12/2005

Ends Middles Beginnings: Edward Cullinan Architects – book review

Ends Middles Beginnings: Edward Cullinan Architects – book review

Jonathan Hale. London: Black Dog Publishing, 1995
ISBN: 190477217X

This practice biography (a more appropriate term than 'monograph' (which is over-used and misunderstood) comes at an important moment in time for both European and emergent British architecture, and it appears as something of a historical marker. Ted Cullinan has been a doyen of British architects, always deeply and perceptively aware of the shift in definition of current architectural quality, and yet more hands-on than most of his contemporaries in the craft and formulation of building. To sit in on a Cullinan lecture is to realise, too, that here stands an outstanding and unique teacher of architecture who talks out and draws on the transparent roll he projects consummately, a thinking line that is wholly persuasive.

It should be said here that Robin Nicholson, his partner/associate, supports him invaluably. The book charts this progress along the Cullinan route with a host of other 'associates' from this co-operative practice. The author here divides the contents into six key thematic sections, which interconnect through building case studies and are subtly interwoven. These reveal how and why, of all contemporary architects, Cullinan's work most evidently fits into that category of architecture that the leading critic and historian, Kenneth Frampton, has described as 'an Architecture of Resistance', so deftly defined. He has never been a 'soft' item, in the shifting of architectural critique out of what might be called its period of architectural transvestism. Now looking back over half a century, one can see how unwavering Cullinan's adherence to his own self-imbued principles has been. He has remained throughout these shifting sands a rigorous hard/soft exponent of all those virtues expounded by Frampton. There is also a consistently humanist attitude over as long a period, much admired in today's new enthusiasm by architects for landscaping, contour and terrace, folding into the natural ground levels of the site. Cullinan was thus engaged long before today's exponents. In his turn, Frampton draws upon the ideas of the influential French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, where both landscape and materiality work together to secure the uniqueness of any prevalent and continuing sense of place.

Looking at key Edward Cullinan Associates projects, the book describes Cullinan's Archaeolink Visitor Centre (1994-98) in Aberdeenshire, barely visible within the mounds of a prehistoric landscape. Still earlier, and also seminal, was Cullinan's Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre (1987-92).

Here was a tour de force; the instalment of a wholly contemporary building with careful materiality, yet seeking out and exposing with drama the Abbey Tower, which can be read from the visitor centre as a single freestanding icon of its now ruinous ecclesiastical realm.

On a gentler scale, the value of landscape gardening when embraced by architects is shown in Cullinan's Ready Mix Concrete plc (RMC) corporate headquarters in Surrey. This collaboration of architect and client also showed how such a client intelligently realised what landscaping can do as a promotion of reinforced concrete. Cullinan mitigated the material effect subtly with a terraced, layered garden landscape, uniting old and new buildings, creating an almost Roman synthesis.

In a section entitled 'Plans, the Geometry of an Idea', the author, Jonathan Hale, shows how in Cullinan's remit, the same humanist principles are carried through in both corporate buildings of scale and academic, campus buildings. Anyone who has landed at London's City Airport (if on the right side of the plane) cannot but be impressed by the Docklands scenario and by Cullinan's contribution to it. There lies the dream of a benign new society, modelled in the quasi-pavilion circular buildings of the student hostels: they could have remained in the Utopian dream world, but thankfully were built, on this waterside location. At Cambridge, the Centre for Mathematical Sciences provides some kind of Newtonian/Wrenian update in its exactitude. Also built at Cambridge University is the St John's College Library (new work) incorporating a solar lantern with a visibly l7th-century resonance (although wholly contemporary). The Faculty of Divinity there, too, a low-slung horizon of cool reappraisal in the shadow of Sir James Stirling's rhetorical History Library, sits easily in the shadow of its more self-assertive neighbours.

A very recent success has been at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, West Sussex, where a new conservation workshop has been completed by Cullinan, with a 'Gridshell Roof', which undulates subtly in accordance with the surrounding landscape. This book diligently catalogues many masterworks of Cullinan, but space is left for Westcombe Lodge, Dorset; a little-known student house of an experimental nature. This uses round pole timber columns, coppiced from local woodlands, and is completed with a grass roof (1997). In this book, many of Cullinan's and Nicholson's closest secrets are revealed, but few contemporaries could ever avail themselves of such strokes of genius. The book has intelligently revealed much of this charisma, but real individual creative achievement is beyond rationalisation, as is usually the case, with exceptional talents skilfully applied. This book successfully remedies this.

The present publishers are to be congratulated for producing such a sumptuous yet workmanlike compendium, given the massive flight from the monograph exemplified by the architectural publishing fraternity in England today. Paul Finch (Editor of The Architectural Review) has supplied a perceptive introduction to the book. He gives some clear insight into the genesis of Cullinan, the insight of his clientele, and the firm's combination of a certain unpredictability with an absolute reliability in terms of providing original solutions. Above all he emphasises the importance of an 'attitude' as offered by the firm, which opens rather than closes doors for clients.

Michael Spens

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