The international Modern style of architecture has had many variations and sub-movements since it was introduced to England in the 1930s: Festival of Britain frivolity, concrete Brutalism, the brick impact architecture of James Stirling and James Gowan, the plastic fantasies of the 1960s. But the direct legacy of Le Corbusier via Lubetkin in England has been transformed by a series of buildings adapting it to British ways by a few men. The most eminent of these is Denys Lasdun.
Lasdun was born and brought up in London. He was educated at Rugby School and at the Architectural Association. While Lasdun acknowledges his debt to the technological innovations of the pioneers of the Modern Movement, he has always rejected their Utopian visions of the city, disliking their lack of continuity with historical surroundings. His often-stated concern for context and detail in buildings has led him to a technique of design which makes extensive use of models rather than drawings.
After leaving the Architectural Association, Las-dun worked with Wells Coates in 1935-37 and joined the Tecton team, led by Lubetkin in 1937. Together with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright they provided a formative influence on his early career.
The house at 32 Newton Road, Paddington (1937-38) is his earliest individual work. Built for a painter, it is a clean rectangular block. The ground floor is recessed a little, the two storeys above have horizontal band windows and the uppermost level of the block is pierced by a large recessed balcony. The concrete is faced in dark brown tiles. The influence of the tradition of Le Corbusier’s “five points in architecture” can be traced in the design.
Lasdun’s character is outwardly of kindness and quiet charm, but beneath this lie obsessive qualities, passion and concentrated energy. A Canadian architect who worked for Maxwell Fry recalls a short period when Fry was in Chandigarh and Lasdun looked after the Fry Drew office the Canadian watched him at work with awe, for he says that he never knew anyone give such unremitting intensity to design work from beginning to end of the day.
After the war Lasdun rejoined Tecton and remained there until the firm’s dissolution in 1948. During that time the immense Hallfield Housing Estate, Bishop’s Bridge Road, Paddington (1951-59) was initiated. It was subsequently developed and executed in partnership with Lindsey Drake. This project, of fifteen large blocks and some smaller ones on a flat but well-treed site, is still recognisably in the Tecton manner with echoes of High Point Two and details such as curved concrete balconies.
The blocks are varied in design and one can see in it an attempt to realise Le Corbusier’s city in a park. But the sheer size of the complex is somewhat overbearing.
Behind the estate in Porchester Terrace, however, is a gem— the Hallfield Primary School (1951-54). Here can be seen Lasdun’s growing interest in a more organic architecture, all detailed on the right scale for small children, the low arms of the building curving out into gardens. The work started the growth of Lasdun’s reputation and marks the beginning of a departure from the influence of his predecessors.
In independent practice he designed two more housing projects which caused something of a sensation. The first was the housing Cluster Block in Usk Street off Roman Road, at Bethnal Green in the East End of London (1952-55). Eight storeys high, the design provides four towers of maisonettes set at different angles to each other, each maisonette connected by a bridge to a central tower of lifts and staircase.
Not far away, Lasdun built a second Cluster Block of fifteen storeys (1955-58). This block is called Keeling House, in Claredale Street off Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green. Part of Lasdun’s idea was to provide independent houses in the sky, each with its own front door and each with a kitchen balcony at the rear from which people could see and talk to their neighbours.
These remarkable buildings certainly provide a visual contrast with the miles and miles of rather characterless housing development in the East End. Both blocks have much quieter low horizontal blocks of brick and concrete by Lasdun near them.
In 1958 Lasdun designed two very different buildings in central London. The Peter Robinson department store at 65 Strand (now offices of the Government of New South Wales), near Charing Cross Station, is a distinguished piece of street architecture with a long horizontal window at ground level, a band of stone with clerestorey lighting and then three bands of bronze-framed office windows above.
His famous block of flats overlooking Green Park, at 26 St. James’s Place (1958-60) expresses the idea of split-level apartments—used earlier in Tecton’s pre-war High-point Two and by Wells Coates on his Palace Gate flats (on which Lasdun had worked as a young assistant)-in a finely articulated building which still remains respectful to its neighbouring Classical mansion.
In 1960 the firm of Denys Lasdun and Partners was founded with Alexander Redhouse and Peter Softley. One of Lasdun’s most successful and elegant designs dates from this time. This is the Royal College of Physicians in St. Andrew’s Place on the outer circle of Regent’s Park (1960-64).
The plan is a T with some projections from it. The rear part is offices, the downstroke of the T coming forward towards Regent’s Park and containing members’ functional and ceremonial parts and the library.
The low lecture room projects to one side—it is of a subtle curving design in dark brick, unlike the light concrete and mosaic finishes of the rest of the long building. (The brick parts have a special significance for Lasdun who said in a 1965 RIBA lecture that they “can be altered, adapted, extended, through a century of occupation.”)
The main mosaic-covered concrete levels, with slit windows, project over each other with three slender piers supporting the overhang above the main entrance. The library is in the upper part of this end. Beyond it, the interior of the building opens up into the complexities of the big staircase hall, one of the finest modern interiors in Britain and presaging the form and atmosphere of the National Theatre foyers.
Above the building rise the twin service towers of concrete and, beyond the lecture hall, another projection at ground level contains the seventeenth-century panelling of the Censor’s Room from the College’s previous premises.
Lasdun’s major projects include buildings elsewhere in Britain, notably the new University of East Anglia in Norwich. Due for completion in 1980 is the new Luxembourg headquarters building for the EEC’s European Investment Bank.
In London, his Wartski shopfront in Regent Street dates from 1962, as does his exciting but unbuilt design for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Parliament Square. In 1965 he was given the commission of the decade in London: the new National Theatre and Opera House on the South Bank of the Thames. The site was to be south of the Royal Festival Hall, and Lasdun produced an imaginative design with tiers of long terraces rising to the two fly towers.
In 1967 the idea of the Opera House was abandoned and the site changed to the one alongside Waterloo Bridge. Lasdun had to start again.
The National Theatre, as designed in 1967 and built in 1969-76, is a happy addition to the cultural life of London and a highly distinguished building well blended with its riverside site. The form is a varied series of long horizontal terraces mounting like a hillside on the river frontage to the two high fly towers above, though the rear elevation presents a rather harsh face.
The terraces penetrate to the interior too, where rich spaces for people to wander during the intervals flow around the auditoria of three theatres of different types and sizes. The architecture rejects vertical facades and uses levels of building like geological strata connected in such a way that they flow into the surrounding riverscape and city. The building is thus intended as an extension of the spaces of the theatre into the everyday world. After its completion Lasdun was knighted and was awarded the 1977 RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture.
1965 was also the year of design of a large redevelopment project for London University on the site of Woburn Square, Bloomsbury. Of this project, the new building for the School of Oriental and African Studies (1972-74) and the highly imaginative. Institutes of Education and of Law, backing onto Bedford Way (1973-76), have been completed. The latter building is designed to have five cascading terraced arms extending towards the eight-storey block of the SOAS building.
Indeed, at the time of writing, Lasdun’s ideas of architecture as urban landscape, embodied in the National Theatre and Opera House scheme, has again been presented with a challenge, this time of placing a new headquarters building on the river front adjacent to the National Theatre. These two buildings taken together are on the scale of Somerset House opposite designed by William Chambers, providing an intriguing comparison between public buildings of the 1770s and of the 1970s.