Test of time
Culture of Building: The Architecture of John McAslan + Partners By Kenneth Powell. Merrell, 2004. £40
As an Englishman who set up practice north of the border, I have taken more than a passing interest in the progress of the Scot, John McAslan (two years my senior at Edinburgh University), who went in the other direction.
Some envy, therefore, when this ample and heavyweight monograph arrived, describing an 80-strong practice with major projects all around the world.
It also appears at a time when (at last) there is some debate regarding the increasing tendency towards the iconic. Graham Morrison's excellent speech said it all (give me an Allies and Morrison building over Piers Gough any day), and I suspect that McAslan would be very much in sympathy.
McAslan's work represents a continuity with some major heroes of the 20th century.
Its clarity is primarily observed in plan and section, and will stand the test of time long after the current fashion for one-liner blobs, shards and wonky tables has been overtaken by the next journalist-fuelled fad. The constructional, structural and spatial elegance of his work is self-explanatory, and some of it is not just clever but reaches the poetic.
The semi-sunken barrel-vaulted recital room for the Royal Academy of Music, or the simple louvred facade to the Benenden Hospital (above), both beautifully photographed, undoubtedly have a timeless quality. Of course, Louis Kahn is never far away, seen in the rigorous planning of projects such as the headquarters building in Reggio Emilia, the Turkish office buildings or the almost complete Fenchurch Street office.
But there is also an interest in highly expressive structures: King's Cross and the competition-winning Kelvin Bridge design back in his native Glasgow, as a reminder of his time spent with Rogers. Unfortunately, though, the presentation of some recent work, particularly a huge office project in China, is premature - there is a thinness, in contrast to earlier projects.
An unusual aspect of the practice is its work restoring some of the great buildings of the 20th century; indeed, McAslan seems to have cornered this particular market. Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's Bexhill Pavilion, Mackintosh's Derngate, Frank Lloyd Wright's Florida Southern College, and the comparatively recent Basil Spence library at Swiss Cottage are all beautifully photographed and presented. The skill in working with these projects is often to leave as little trace as possible, and indeed McAslan is so successful at this, it is sometimes quite difficult to work out exactly what he has done.
The line between academic monograph and practice promotional literature has become fairly indistinct lately (I plead guilty myself), so if I have a criticism of this book, it is that it strays too far into the realm of promotion. Kenneth Powell's introductory essay could hardly be called 'critical', and the attempt to explain the architectural lineage of the practice, starting with McAslan's Clydeside childhood, is fundamentally flawed by omitting a serious description of the work during the 12 years of practice as Troughton McAlsan; indeed, there seems to be a pretence that John McAslan + Partners burst on the world in 1996 as a 'new' practice.
The split between the two partners is described as amiable (at least we are spared the Stalinist airbrush that Will Alsop applied to John Lyall after their split), with projects in that period being stated as belonging to one or the other partner - so why not show us the ones primarily originating from McAslan?
My main criticism, however, is the absence of drawings - odd for a practice that places so much emphasis on the plan or the section.
You sense McAslan is clever, but you rarely get the chance to prove it to yourself. There's no contextual plan showing just how deft he was at inserting the concert hall into the Royal College of Music; no plan of the ordering of the Istanbul office; no vital section for the Manchester Law Faculty; no explanation of how nursery-school children accommodate themselves to the rigours of a Kahn-inspired geometry; no plan of Derngate to show how the adjacent houses are linked up and visitors progress through the Mackintosh rooms. The list goes on.
This is a pity. Perhaps the monograph was not intended for fellow architects but more for potential clients, and, irritatingly, every project description includes the words 'John McAslan + Partners' in its first sentence or paragraph, as if we need constant reminders as to who the book is about.
McAslan is certainly not shy of self-promotion, and hopefully there will be another monograph in a few years' time when these omissions can be corrected. We need more McAslans, because we need more architects making the everyday into something special.
Richard Murphy is an architect in Edinburgh