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Casson's charmed life

Hugh Casson: A Biography By Jose Manser. Viking, 2000. 398pp. £25

The 1951 Festival of Britain, unlike the current doomed Dome, was a huge popular success - a real tonic to a nation thirsty for celebration, colour and fun after wartime austerity. That success was largely due to the energy, vision and organisational ability of its 40-year-old director of architecture Hugh Casson, gaining him fame and a knighthood.

Just how he got the job, having achieved little architecturally up to then, is not made clear in this biography. Casson had worked on exhibition designs and undertaken a large amount of journalism, first for the architectural press (he wrote the Astragal column in the AJ from the 1930s until the Festival), and then for a succession of women's magazines and art publications, as well as producing architectural guide books.

More significantly, he had built up a considerable circle of contacts aided by his charming manner. Charm is a word that recurs throughout this book.Casson was a charming blue-eyed child, a charming student at Cambridge and the Bartlett, who produced endless charming watercolours, designed charming camouflage during the war (how he avoided the call-up is not explained), charmed royalty while giving his services free, and charmed rich Americans out of their money.

Even when xenophobic or sexist he was still charming. But under the charm there was a pretty shrewd operator. He rubbed shoulders with, or encouraged, the great and the good but never achieved any architectural greatness himself, as the book admits. His practice, run by his partner Neville Condor, designed a succession of workman-like but- apart from the Elephant House at London Zoo (see right) - unmemorable buildings.

Casson was a Modernist with reservations, he removed the 'un' from uncompromisingly modern and hated theory, especially if uttered with a thick foreign accent. His contribution was rather in the form of the quick concept sketch or seductive perspective. His drawings are sensitive and evocative of space but can be facile and gutless. He was no Gordon Cullen.

Casson's talent was as an enabler, a recogniser of talent, an organiser. This was supremely in evidence when he became president of the Royal Academy and was instrumental in transforming that institution from near bankruptcy to the going commercial concern it is today.

Variously described as 'the last gentleman amateur', 'an impresario' and 'fizzing like a rocket', Casson was proof that architectural talent does not just lie in the making of buildings. The Festival of Britain was completed to a tight budget and programme by a team of young architects Casson amassed without a project manager in sight. How have we a l lowed th is ro le to be taken over by others ?

On the debit side, Casson seems to have been a flitter, alighting briefly on his many areas of responsibility, whether it be Casson Condor or the Royal College of Art where, as head of interior design, he helped give the discipline an equivalent status to architecture. But then the butterfly was off to the next event, leaving the practice or the students or the institution to get on with it.Casson seems to have been a member of every organisation and committee there was. He continued this exhausting lifestyle well into his 80s.

In an official biography (the Mansers were friends of Casson) there is always the suspicion that a gloss has been applied, despite the attempt to be objective and mildly critical. Like its subject, it tries to cover too much ground, to cram everything in, and this sometimes makes for dull reading. Certainly it is not in the Fiona MacCarthy mould - there is little psychological delving or putting Casson's life into its historical context. A child of colonial civil servants, Casson was sent home with his sister during the First World War and from the age of four until nine lived with relatives. Was his ability to charm and entertain a coping mechanism against this deprivation?

There is a hint that he had a bad relationship with his father and that his capacity to relate to his family - despite being married for over 50 years - was deficient. His architect son-in-law Roger Zogolovitch feels that his stream of Lutyens-style illustrated notes to all and sundry were a substitute for personal contact. Casson himself said his desire to be amusing and entertaining hid a lack of self-confidence.

But perhaps the final epitaph should be left to another of Casson's many proteges, Norman Foster, who worked for Casson Conder as a student.

'His style was emulated by everyone, including myself. I was and still am a great admirer of his drawing. I think I still do characters that bear a close resemblance to his when I'm putting people into a drawing.'

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