An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson By Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite Ashgate Publishing,2005.360pp. £60
This is a very dense, quite difficult-to-read book on nice Sandy Wilson. But despite the painstaking detail and footnotes, you put the book down with no great idea of who Wilson really is.
The what of Sir Colin St John Wilson is covered in full. An RA, son of a bishop, art connoisseur, and first in line to Leslie Martin for the chair at Cambridge, he is a pillar of the British architectural establishment. He was one of those post-war architects who worked at the LCC housing department, were socially committed, argued endlessly about architecture and Corb, then slipped easily into private practice. This was the preArchigram generation - and one conclusion the text unexpectedly draws you to is that, despite Team X, 'This is Tomorrow' and suchlike, it was a provincial generation, scrambling for approval by imitating a few international masters.
It was a generation confused by Corb's shift to the non-orthogonal modes of Ronchamp, and which - with the brilliant exception of Jim Stirling - sought a more gentlemanly, understated, Protestant architecture, and found it in Scandinavia. Wilson, who 'quite likes having heroes', converted to the Aalto cult in 1957. He took up brick and, say the authors Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite, began to think in terms of 'the archetypes of wall, court, podium and hanging garden', from which all else followed.
Writing biography about living people is fraught. Your readers at once ask: who paid you? Is your narrative based on the subject's own version of his story? Have you pulled punches because of libel fears or a wish to please the living? And how do you gain the subject's cooperation without handing them the blue pencil?
Wilson is so charming and clubbable that anybody's instinct is to please him. So the seeker after the other truth looks for some obvious markers.
For starters, that Visions of Britain debate at the V&A which got Wilson's trenchant comments about Prince Charles on to the front pages. It's not in the book.
There are lacunae of a different kind. Kite, an authority on the writing of Adrian Stokes (said to be central to Wilson's thinking) assumes, incorrectly, that the reader knows it just as well. There is much about the influence of psychoanalysts Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott but no real explanation of it. There is a general proposition that Wilson has been preoccupied with aedicular form (think of the primitive hut), which can be traced back to him as a child sitting under a table, but a pair of Kleinian analysts I asked about this were bemused:
Klein placed no significance on isolated childhood experiences.
There is, naturally, a great deal about the British Library and it is useful to have Wilson's line on it yet again, if only because it represents decades of his life. In his foreword, Juhani Pallasmaa mentions his initial problems with 'the Chinese ambience, the heavy profiles, as well as the distinctly vernacular tones and historical echoes' of the library.
Diplomatically he says he has got over them - but once you notice a pulled punch like this, you're on the lookout for more.
And there is a very great deal about Wilson's thinking - much of it, you guess, from the horse's mouth. But it is dogged, and obscured by the authors' desire to interpret and connect with the contemporaneous positions of others. The minutiae remind you of pinheads and angels.
This is the product of an academic publisher. With a really adept editor, it could have been a good, solid, academic read - but half the length.
Sutherland Lyall is an architectural journalist