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Jencks on Barts showdown: 'Aesthetics and Complementary Contrast'

Charles Jencks, co-founder of the Maggie’s Centres, on why architectural debate is healthy and his support for Steven Holl’s proposals for Barts

‘It is always healthy for architecture if people of strong opinions can debate issues of meaning when designs are proposed for sensitive sites. The place of counter-schemes in this debate is also a positive force for architectural culture.

‘In this regard it is important, as they say, to declare some interests. Michael and Patty Hopkins are good friends, and Michael has come to me several times with some counter-schemes proposed to our Holl design at Barts hospital in London. He has acted honourably and openly with these proposals, and he started working for the Friends of the Great Hall, as far as I know, before our Holl design was proposed. So, in this spirit of open advocacy, I have no disagreement with Michael’s admirable conduct or motives.

Holl’s ‘little lantern’ for Maggie’s is just such a welcome contrast

‘On aesthetic grounds, however, the positive points of Holl’s design must be granted and fully appreciated. In a classical context of ordered masonry, where walls of repetitive windows and stone become dominant, then a counter-theme of light and colour – if it is well-handled – can be a positive solution. Steven Holl’s ‘little lantern’ for Maggie’s is just such a welcome contrast, and is very sensitively handled. It is both in the light and white spectrum of the classical context, and yet it adds subtle accents of colour. Viewed in this way it is like the existing St Barts chapel nearby, a wonderful uplifting beacon of hope and release; it raises the spirits in just the way the classical architect of the Great Hall would have appreciated.

‘James Gibbs, notably at St Martin in the Fields, broke the classical rules of consistency when he placed a steeple just behind and over a pediment. Many people were shocked, some objected, but this forceful contrast then became the new ideal, especially in America, for so many New England churches – and was also appreciated on these shores.

‘Of course, there are positive values in both consistency and contrast, and many passionate debates on the virtues of each are recorded back to medieval times, in music as much as in architecture. Holl’s approach to this design has brought in musical contrasts, as he has pointed out in watercolours and writings. His track record on adding to classical sites in the past, with complementary contrast, has won awards and is the equal of any architect practising today. We should judge the proposal on these grounds, as well as on its many social and medical merits.’  


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