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A catholic modernism

review

Over the last 15 years or so, Alan Powers has championed the cause of a number of unfashionable - and in some cases almost forgotten - British architects of the twentieth century, among them H S Goodhart-Rendel, Robert Atkinson, Tayler & Green, and Sir Albert Richardson. At the same time, he has found time to delve into the history of the Modern Movement in Britain (the tradition in which he was raised). He is not, in any obvious sense, a traditionalist, though he is a sceptic, with no fixed affiliations to any present-day school of design.

Powers' new book on Francis Pollen, handsomely designed and produced, is another chapter in the story which the author has been exploring since the mid Eighties: the interaction of tradition and modernity in a country slow to embrace the modern and the radical. Pollen was, however, an architect of the post-war (Stirling, rather than Lasdun) generation - after three years in the Royal Engineers, he went up to Cambridge in 1948 (a few years before Ted Cullinan). Cullinan was to find the traditionalism of the Cambridge school irksome, but to Pollen, whose idol was Lutyens, it was home from home. 'I feel I am in the right place,' he wrote after listening to an impassioned denunciation of functionalism by one of his tutors.

Francis Pollen's family background was both aristocratic and Catholic, but it was not that of Brideshead Revisited. While still at school, he met Lutyens' son Robert and was recruited to help sort the late master's drawings for the forthcoming Memorial Volumes. It was the late Lutyens, the almost abstract Classicist, who drew his admiration - the picturesque sweetness of the Surrey style held no attractions for Pollen. In partnership with his brother-in-law Philip Jebb, he designed the London Assurance offices in Pall Mall (1956, now demolished), a Lutyensesque design applauded by Sir Albert Richardson, who helped steer it past the rfac.

Jebb, boosted by good connections, subsequently joined the ranks of architects like Gerald Wellesley and Claude Phillimore, designing new houses and skilfully refashioning old ones for blue-chip clients who cared nothing for modern architecture. Pollen's career took a different turn. His vision of a continuing tradition embraced Henry Moore, Picasso and Le Corbusier, whose church at Ronchamp, completed in 1954, defied easy categorisation.

Pollen, whose first completed building was a convent chapel in Wales, was active in the ecclesiastical field. As a practising Catholic, he was anxious that the Church should ally itself to modern design and turn away from 'archaeologism'. The Liturgical Movement was nothing new, but its precepts were only slowly accepted in Britain; Vatican II gave them the weight of Holy Writ.

Pollen's sympathies lay with Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, architects of the iconic St Paul's, Bow Common, and the exponents of a New Brutalist approach to church design. His Catholicism helped him come to terms with a thoroughgoing Modernism. He thought Spence's Coventry Cathedral 'ghastly' and compared Gibberd's Liverpool Cathedral to 'an octopus about to deliver'.

The Church was the client for Pollen's greatest work, the Abbey church at Worth, Sussex, built in 1965-75. Powers evokes the names of Lutyens, Kahn, Wright and Franco Albini in his discussion of what he rightly judges a masterpiece (though it was hardly noted by the architectural press, but for a belated appearance in aj 30.1.91).

In 1959, Pollen entered into partnership with Lionel Brett (Lord Esher). The partnership lasted into the early 1970s and produced a remarkable range of work, including the Corbusian boys' club in Hoxton, a sleek office block in Sloane Street, London, and the admirable Pall Mall Court in King Street, Manchester - now up for listing.

Like Jim Stirling, Pollen felt no obligation to justify his stylistic twists and turns. But while Stirling is generally acclaimed a 'great' architect, Francis Pollen is judged 'interesting'. The adjective reflects the difficulties which his outlook, and those of others like him, posed for the critics.

Mercifully, he was too little-known in the latter years of his life to be subsumed into the Post-Modernist camp - where he did not belong. His rejection of functionalism, hardly contentious these days, was based on an essentially religious view of the relationship between people and buildings. His too-short career offers one alternative to both Post-Modernism and the historicism of the Princely school.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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