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Keith Williams: Architecture of the Specific

Edwin Heathcote reviews a new book exploring the work of Keith Williams

It’s never straightforward to review a monograph of a contemporary architect: there is an inevitable confusion between an attempt to examine the work as opposed to the book - the contents or the content.

To look at the work first, Keith Williams has constructed an extremely consistent and elegant oeuvre in a short time. His work falls neatly into a particular brand of British modernism, which has proved more popular elsewhere in the EU than at home - something he shares with his former partner Terry Pawson, as well as with Stanton Williams and others. It is defined by an architecture that confronts the civic realm with a generosity, a language of modernism, a clarity and a confidence that is peculiarly un-English.

The superb Wexford Opera House (AJ 16.10.08), for example, is a deceptively impressive achievement - a major civic structure delicately inserted into the smalltown fabric. It reveals an auditorium of real urban grandeur and intensity, eschewing the iconic in favour of the warm embrace of theatrical space, yet it nevertheless allows its flytower to rise as an urban marker. His Long House (2005) in London’s St John’s Wood does something similar in the domestic sphere, presenting a modestly modernist facade to its mews setting, yet revealing a rich interior world that alludes carefully to both Louis Kahn and Mies van der Rohe.

With two more major buildings on site, the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and the Chichester Museum, it will be intriguing to see how the office confronts yet more complex and historic urban juxtapositions.

This is very much a study of architect as creator, the photography exhibiting the finality of the completed

This book itself is conventional. There is seductive photography, a foreword by Paul Finch and an essay by Kenneth Powell, but there might have been room for something more oblique. This is very much a study of architect as creator, the photography exhibiting the finality of the completed. A little more uncertainty, some recognition of the after life of architecture, of imperfection and the world beyond building might have leavened it.

Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally well-produced book amid an undistinguished genre that elegantly documents the work of an architect whose office is becoming one of the most dependable on the London scene.

‘Keith Williams: Architecture of the Specific’
Images Publishing, 2009, £47,

Edwin Heathcote is architecture critic at the Financial Times

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