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No time to tango

Serge Chermayeff 1900-96: The Shape of Modern Living At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge until 5 May, and the De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill-on-Sea from 10 June-15 July 2001

For many, the name Serge Chermayeff conjures up images of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, 1934-36, and the house at Old Church Street, Chelsea, 1936, both designed in partnership with Erich Mendelsohn. Then there is Bentley Wood (above), the house at Halland in Sussex that he designed for himself and family in 1938.

Others may recall interior design projects in pre-war Britain, including the Cambridge Theatre in London, 1930, and Broadcasting House, 1932, where Chermayeff was responsible for a number of important spaces within G Val Myers' building. There were also significant works following the dissolution of the partnership with Mendelsohn, such as the Gilbey's headquarters in Camden Town, 1937, and, a year later, research laboratories for ICI at Blackley, Manchester.

In 1940 Chermayeff went to the United States and began a distinguished academic career. This led from the Department of Design at Brooklyn College via the Institute of Design at Chicago, MIT and Harvard to the School of Art and Architecture at Yale, where he taught from 1962-69. Two major publications, Community and Privacy, 1963, written with Christopher Alexander, and Shape of Community, 1971, with Alexander Tzonis, are the summation of this period.

Judged purely by these high points, this was a significant life. The De La Warr Pavilion and Bentley Wood have acquired iconic status in British Modernism. Both Community and Privacy and Shape of Community retain their place in the literature of socially responsive architecture. But to leave the record at this would misrepresent both Chermayeff and the times through which he lived.

The aim of this exhibition and of the accompanying book by its curator Alan Powers , Serge Chermayeff: Designer, Architect, Teacher (RIBA Publications), is to flesh-out the picture and allow a wider evaluation of his achievement.

Born in 1900 near Grozny, Chechnya, Chermayeff came with his parents to Britain before the First World War. In 1918, after Harrow School, he began a dual career as illustrator and professional ballroom dancer.

In 1924, after a spell in Argentina, where he improved his tango, Chermayeff began to work in earnest as an interior designer. His short-lived partnership with Mendelsohn, 1933-36, gave him the opportunity to work on architectural projects and, subsequently, to practice in his own name. But after the practice ended in bankruptcy in 1939, he moved to America and into teaching.

In his work at MIT, Harvard and Yale, Chermayeff established a connection between teaching and research and was one of the first to recognise the need for PhD studies in architecture. Working with his students, among whom were Eldred Evans, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, he embarked upon a series of critical inquiries into the relationship between built form and social structure. In addition to the two major books, numerous lectures and articles argued that the production of architecture should be founded on social analysis and objective procedures.

During his years in America, Chermayeff built a number of mainly small houses, known principally to aficionados. Quite apart from their intrinsic merits, these and parallel unbuilt projects played a key role in the development of the theoretical argument. Chermayeff was convinced that theory and practice were inextricably connected.

The house that he built for himself and his wife in 1963 in Lincoln Street, New Haven was a living demonstration of the central theme of Community and Privacy. Although it contradicted much of the prevailing taste in American architecture at the time, and certainly the early stirrings of Post-Modernism, it was a beautifully judged synthesis of social awareness, simple technology and subtle organisation of space and light.

The exhibition tells this complex story through a combination of full-scale artifacts: furniture and textiles, original and reproduced drawings, photographs and documents. There are also original art works, including paintings by Piper, Wadsworth and Chermayeff himself - he was a life-long painter and his works come as one of the major surprises and pleasures of the show.

Sadly, there are too few architectural models. Significantly, however, two buildings that are modelled are his own houses at Bentley Wood and Lincoln Street. Between them, these capture the clarity and richness of Chermayeff 's vision as it continued over the decades and between two continents.

Dean Hawkes is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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