Over the top
John Simpson: The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and Other Works By Richard John and David Watkin. Andreas Papadakis, 2002. 136pp. £20
The appearance of this book to coincide with the opening of The Queen's Gallery is a considerable achievement in publishing terms. A number of the gallery's completed interiors, with furnishings and works of art in place, are illustrated with photographs up to the same excellent standard of those throughout the book. Indeed, the overall quality of the production is high, confirming Andreas Papadakis' confident emergence, post-Academy, as an independent architectural publisher.
The text is all that one would expect from scholars of the stature of Richard John and David Watkin: elegant, informative and wellpitched for a general, as much as a specialist, audience. It is also, as one would expect, highly partisan, depicting John Simpson, architect of The Queen's Gallery, as a brave defender of tradition against 'Modernists who always seek as a starting point a tabula rasa from which all vestiges of the past have been expunged, thus allowing every commission to be approached as though no building had ever been designed before'.
Many of these 'Modernists' will probably wince as they pass Simpson's Greek Doric portico on Buckingham Palace Road ('a tour de force in which the principles of Greek construction and ornament come more dramatically alive for us than in any other modern work of its kind', say John and Watkin). They may even eschew a visit to the gallery, denying themselves a rich artistic treat - treasures from Duccio to Freud - but also an interesting architectural experience.
You do not need to share the authors' estimate of Simpson's achievement here - they rank it alongside Soane's at the Bank of England - to find the project, if not entirely admirable, at least remarkable. Go with the flow and you might conclude that there is room, on the British architectural scene, for something as full-blooded and over the top as this. Simpson and his collaborators, like the sculptor Sandy Stoddart and the carver Dick Reid, have worked with great conviction.
What might Michael Hopkins or Jeremy Dixon (also shortlisted for the gallery) have made of the project? Both are, in a sense, traditionalists who draw on history in their work. But neither, I am sure, would have much time for Simpson's 'literalism', nor have they aligned themselves, as he conspicuously has, with the architectural campaigns of the Prince of Wales.
Simpson established his practice in 1980 but came to public notice later that decade when his alternative scheme for Paternoster Square, backed by the Prince, was decisive in derailing the winning one by Arup Associates. By 1991, Simpson, paired rather uncomfortably with Terry Farrell, was set to build a version of the Paternoster project - it fell victim to the 1990s recession.
Since then, the New Classicism seems to have made little headway. It has been pushed back to the fringes, the world of opulent private houses, where figures like Raymond Erith and Francis Johnson had kept it alive during the 1950s and 60s. Poundbury, launched with such hopes in 1993, has made little impact on the wider development scene - I find Simpson's market hall there the least happy of his built works, a perversely clumsy reworking of the one at Tetbury (the nearest town to Highgrove). In contrast, his progression of new common rooms at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, has all the skilful planning, spatial skill and command of detail found at the Palace.
It is pointless to slate Simpson and other New Classicists for lack of originality, for not being 'progressive' in the way that such profound Classicists as Behrens, Lutyens, Plecnik or Asplund were. Simpson is happy to revisit the work of Soane, Nash, Cockerell and others and rework their inventions, often on a reduced scale, for 21st century needs.
The Watkin school of criticism commends him for this: the quest for 'originality', it argues, has produced the disaster of Modern architecture and urbanism. Not for Simpson the explicit attempt to fuse Classicism with modern technology and materials found, sometimes to bizarre effect, in the work of Robert Adam. Instead, he seeks for beauty and a form of perfection that would have been understood in the Georgian age - and his vision has plenty of buyers.
In the US, where Robert Stern, Allen Greenberg and others have built modern Classicism on a huge scale, he could doubtless run a large office. In Britain, in contrast, he and others like him seem boxed into a corner - there are only so many jobs that the Royals can offer. Simpson, I suspect, is not content with this, and the next phase of his work might offer clues as to the prospects for the Classicists in decades to come.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist