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A job well done

letter from lambeth

Poor William Curtis! The distinguished architectural historian's horror at Stanton Williams' modifications to the National Theatre (aj 25.6.98) has deeper causes than outrage at the 'real damage' he feels has been done to the building. His reaction comes, I suggest, from subliminally realising that accepting legitimacy in Stanton Williams' work is to recognise the deep flaws scarring the National Theatre's conception and execution. And not only the theatre, but the generation whose obsessions with form Professor Curtis has spent his career nurturing.

For the theatre epitomises the architecture of a generation, a late flowering of post-war British public architecture's one Big Idea - that all buildings could be a version of the Maison Dom-ino, with (as in the nt and Royal Festival Hall) large shapes thrust through the floors, or, (as at Pompidou and in Colquhoun and Miller's seminal Royal Holloway building) without the shapes. Add Sir Denys's pronouncements that 'I never separated my ideas about architecture from those on the nature of cities', and you have the constituent parts which allowed architects to believe that without major revisions, Modernism really could engage with the city. To go further into the nature of cities or the failings of Modernism would have undermined not just their beliefs but also their status.

The building's apologists have spun a powerful myth around the National. To criticise it is to criticise Modernism and to sin against the canon: Sir Denys, Fry, Lubetkin, Le Corbusier. So powerful is this construct that we have to accept every pronouncement about it at face value. So when Sir Denys speaks of 'eliminating the facade', we believe it. Then John Hurley, Sir Denys's partner, decries the new book shop: 'Sir Denys thinks it has wrecked the facade.' Perhaps the mythologisers will tell us how something they have already eliminated could be wrecked.

Professor Curtis, perhaps, has the excuse that his judgement of the National Theatre derives initially from models, and more recently his early summer 'strolls'. Had he travelled across Waterloo Bridge regularly since he first saw the model, and if he did not winter in sunnier climes than the 51st Parallel, he would know that the difference in impression between the seductive summer evening sunlight and a wet winter's day is so great that it negates the 'intellectual and artistic integrity of the work . . .' without adding that the change of site for the theatre must have undermined it anyway.

He might have noticed how the tiny arrisses left by the horizontal shuttering on the flytowers cause rain to form unsightly streaks which parody the intentions of a building composed of 'geological strata'. He might, too, have pondered on the imperceptibility of the 'sacred' 45degrees angle from the bridge to the flytower, and the empty cabbalism which 'ties' the building in triangular relationship to Somerset House and St Paul's. He might even have questioned whether the polygonal lift towers were really the powerful vertical elements intended to anchor the predominantly horizontal composition. He might have realised that compression for no purpose where it is least expected - at an entrance - is painfully close to claustrophobia.

Professor Curtis prefers to retreat behind another myth. He asks whether anyone would want to move a line in a Mondrian painting. No-one has never attended a theatrical performance in a Mondrian canvas, nor has anybody attempted to meet friends for coffee in one. If Mondrian's works were to be so used they would require rather more modification than moving lines; more changes than Stanton Williams have made to the National Theatre. It is an empty argument, and a pernicious one, for it perpetuates the myth that architecture is art, pure and simple.

Instead, Stanton Williams' modest interventions recognise the indissoluble relationship between architecture and function; that only through ennobling function can architecture go on to explore sophisticated ideas. When many people engage in a similar function it achieves a measure of objectivity, adequate, at least, to provide a starting point for architecture. Curtailing or brutally suppressing function into formal anomalies results in cramped foyers and unlocatable entrances. It is these spaces and their overblown associations which Stanton Williams addresses. In replacing pretension with a sensitivity to use, it does just what Frank Duffy and like-minded management consultants have urged architects to do. It also more nearly realises the National Theatre's purpose of being 'its own advertisement, visibly and unmistakably a popular institution', integrated more closely with the city than any abstract axes.

Stanton Williams has brought Harley Granville Barker's dream, and Sir Denys's own aim, a step closer.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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