Eric Parry Architects, Volume 1 By Wilfried Wang and Dalibor Vesely. Black Dog Publishing, 2002. 208pp. £24.95 London-based Eric Parry, who is esteemed as a teacher, respected by other architects, and generally liked as a person, has assembled his work from 1986 into a monograph.
If the title alone, Eric Parry Architects, Volume 1, does not alert us to the office's ambitions, then having an introduction by Dalibor Vesely, lecturer and phenomenological eminence grise in the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge, and an essay by Wilfried Wang, recently director of the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, certainly makes the point.
The book focuses on 15 projects of the past 15 years, with 44 others given short descriptions in a 'projects summary' at the end. Each of the 15 is comprehensively described through photographs, drawings, sketches, and a descriptive and critical text.
The projects, mostly in and around London, range from residential renovations (including a chateau in the south of France) to office buildings and the Southwark Information Centre. It is nicely designed and well produced.
The projects are presented chronologically, though that fact is obscured, suggesting that we should consider this a body of consistent work or of continual themes rather than a catalogue raisonée that would show us what the office has left behind. Such an assured position from a relatively young firm is remarkable, given the considerable vacillations in architecture over the period that the book covers; from historicism to Neo-Modernism has been a lot of ground to cover. And that quiet sense of purpose and consistency seems closely tied to Parry's long association with the Department of Architecture at Cambridge, where he taught from 1982-1997.
As the two essays claim, Cambridge's lineage follows from the Le Corbusier of béton brut through Aalto, Lewerentz, Martin and St John Wilson, searching for the poetic and humane face of Modern architecture.
Although the authors do not quite admit it, this has become a true school, treading a path indefatigably if often singly. It divides the world into adherents and the other. If there is a British architecture, it is coming out of Cambridge. You would recognise the soft pencil renderings.
As Wang says in his essay, an architecture interested in a phenomenological hermeneutics 'immerses itself in the messiness of praxis, its conflicts and accommodations. It is an insight which runs counter to the proclivity for totalising theoretical generalisations.' While that sounds reasonable enough, and explains how every project in the book can be admirably singular, it also suggests the shortcomings in the work.
This is an office that can be bold at 30 Finsbury Square, hackneyed at Stockley Park, precise at Pembroke College, competent in Malaysia, stylish at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (see picture), and misguided at Southwark Tourist Information Centre. It is well and good not to be in thrall to manifestations of technology or the repackaging of Modernist motifs, as Wang blithely dismisses the current situation, but what exactly are the issues that drive what is obviously an ambitious office?
It seems to be a situational poetics (or poesis as they say), a response to the specific character of place and material which will speak to us from our everyday reality. But unlike the younger generation that has rediscovered the Smithsons, the everyday, and even Butterfield's 'glory of ugliness', Parry's understanding of context and the response to it is less histrionic, less didactic, but also less engaged.
Parry's work usually does avoid the romanticism and nostalgia that the rearguard position of a situational poetics can invite, the office is clearly talented, and the best work is very good indeed. But the monograph fails to leave us eagerly anticipating volume two. It will, however, no doubt be welcomed by those already in thrall.
Steven Spier is professor at the University of Strathclyde