Published  30/09/2009

Book review: Trevor Dannatt: Works and Words

Trevor Dannatt: works and words

By Roger Stonehouse
Black Dog Publishing, 2008


Trevor Dannatt, RA, FRIBA (b. London 1920) has been a prominent architect in Britain for most of the post-war period. Subsequently he became a Royal Academician and Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, having been a Visiting Professor, Washington, St Louis, and Professor at Manchester University School of Architecture. His architectural career has shown a remarkably consistent trajectory as a mainstream modernist. He was Honorary Secretary of the M.A.R.S Group (1952–57) as well as currently President of the key 20th Century Society and a Trustee of DOCOMO (Documents of the Modern Movement) from 1991. He also showed early a facility for writing and editing.

Roger Stonehouse has wisely given vent to that additional talent, which reveals Dannatt’s inherent literacy, in a special supplement at the end of the book. Editions of the Architects Year Book of the 1960s wholly captured the vision and intrigue of that transitional, but productive period, of British architecture. In many subsequent obituaries of former friends and colleagues is also revealed his sympathy and understanding for others in the field, such as Max Fry, Jane Drew, Ove Arup, the Dane Finn Juhl. He had a gift for eloquent critique, as when he dismissed, gently (in comparison with Van de Velde’s Kroller Museum in Holland) Gehry’s Bilbao as “more an urban pivot than a gallery”. His rich architectural friendship with Denis Lasdun is described with generosity on their visit to the Abbey Church of Sant’Animo, a Benedictine masterpiece (1120), which in its simplicity of volume and profile would have deeply moved him. For Dannatt too was a purist, still influenced perhaps as Stonehouse points out by a nonconformist church childhood. Of like mind of course would be the subject of another obituary, ‘Frederic Lucas Marcus’: and indeed Dannatt’s lifelong interest in the artist Max Bill, and subsequent collection is visual proof today of that philosophy. Dannatt was part of the Festival Hall Design Group, and a personally attributable item was very elegant, somewhat high-tech metal canopy to the South Entrance there (now displaced), yet which appears historically now to be a work of the 1980s than the early 60s. Dannatt’s obituary of Peter Moro, a star of the Festival Hall Design Group was as his own contribution to this was concerned, typically reticent. In fact throughout a long and productive career it has to be said that Trevor Dannatt’s achievement has been much unsung and not adequately recognised.

Dannatt’s personal admiration of the Finnish master Alvar Aalto, was unstinting. For this author to be standing under the domed roof lights at the Viipuri Library (by Aalto c. l933) with Dannatt was memorably enlightening. One of his formative early collaborations was with Sir Leslie Martin in the Festival Hall Group and this led in due course to collaboration with Martin on the Leicester University Hall of Residence (1960) This work seems fortuitously related to Harvey Court at Cambridge which Leslie Martin, Colin St John Wilson, and Patrick Hodgkinson designed (1957–62). It has proved difficult, even contentious to unravel the individual contributions here, but at Leicester Dannatt’s vital contribution was clearly recognisable. Subsequently Dannatt’s partnership with Colin Dollimore and Ronald Paxton was, as Trevor Dannatt and Partners. This combination was highly productive, encompassing The King Feisal Conference Centre in Riyadh and sustainable housing there for the British Embassy as well as a Mosque that somehow married desert Puritanism with his own nonconformist philosophy. In 1988 Dannatt was able to take on the Master Plan for the University of Greenwich, to be housed in four major Listed Buildings and Dannatt received from this grateful client the honour of Doctor of Design, Honoris Causa, in 2002.

Stonehouse has recognised the importance of Dannatt’s private houses, within his total oeuvre. Early and most significant has been the masterly Laslett House (1958), which brought Dannatt (in his later 30s by then) into prominence. Today, this building, clad in its immaculate timber panels, stands as a testament to the true ethic of evolving modernism. The first floor corner window slots in effortlessly and the detailing is impeccable and has survived the dampness of the Cambridgeshire Fens. Perhaps significantly and preceding Colin St John Wilson’s Grantchester Road houses (1961–64) one has to concede to Dannatt the centre stand on that podium. But it is only now that attention can be reclaimed for himself. A subsequent and little known house, Pitcorthie House, Fife, Scotland (1966) is likewise a largely unhailed masterwork of British mainstream modernism (a nonconformist essay to set against English Episcopalian thinking, hardwired more than one might think). This is a timely and comprehensive study of a contemporary master. Stonehouse’s work was preceded by a previous equally thorough and enlightening study of the architecture of Dannatt’s contemporary and fellow Royal Academician Sir Colin St John Wilson RA: Buildings and Projects, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2007. The dedication of this publisher has ensured that the canon of British later twentieth century architecture is becoming increasingly complete as the major gaps are now filled. Roger Stonehouse is to be complimented as the author and researcher of both works.

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