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Monica Pidgeon (1913 - 2009)

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Peter Murray remembers Monica Pidgeon, editor of Architectural Design for 30 years, who died last week at the age of 95

Monica Pidgeon, who died last week at the age of 96, kept a scrapbook of mementoes and photographs from every year of her life. The pages give a powerful sense of the potential of the post-war generation, who believed they could create a better world, with modernism and international cooperation as their tools, out of the carnage of the Second World War.  

Pasted into the book are details of the founding meeting of the Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA) in Lausanne, of which Monica was on the organising committee. Le Corbusier is photographed addressing the eighth International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, with Monica sitting in the front row. The youthful Denys Lasdun and Ernö Goldfinger are snapped by Monica with Welles Coates at CIAM 9, when the schism between CIAM and the Team X architecture collective emerged into the open.

Monica was born in Chile. Her father, Andre Lehman, was French and her mother was Scottish. At her mother’s insistence, the family moved to England when Monica was 16 to complete her education. She was studying interior design at the Bartlett school of architecture where she met Raymond Pidgeon. They were married in 1936.

Monica worked as a furniture designer until the outbreak of war, when she went to Architectural Design (AD) magazine as assistant to the editor Tony Towndrow, who was under the misapprehension that Monica had an architectural degree. She was promoted to editor in 1946 when Towndrow emigrated to Australia, but it was with the appointment of Theo Crosby as technical editor in 1953 that the magazine took on the form that was to shape its editorial policies for the following 20 years. Monica gave great freedom to the technical editors – Crosby, Kenneth Frampton, Robin Middleton and me – to follow our particular enthusiasms.

Crosby was a significant figure on the architectural and art scene in the 1950s. With Reyner Banham, he curated the This is Tomorrow show at the Whitechapel Gallery, collecting the work of artists and architects including Goldfinger, James Stirling, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Colin St John Wilson and Alison and Peter Smithson.

Monica was a member of the organising committee of the UIA conference in London in 1961. It was there that she met Richard Buckminster Fuller. In his World Design Science Decade, Fuller proposed that architectural schools around the world should be encouraged to carry out a 10-year study into the fair use of global resources. The idea suited AD’s international perspective perfectly and the magazine regularly published articles on Fuller’s work.

In addition to promoting the work of Fuller in the 1960s, AD was a staunch advocate of the theories of Team X and the work of the Smithsons, who used the magazine as their mouthpiece. Frampton took over from Crosby in 1962 and, although he only stayed two years, shifted AD’s content to a focus on the buildings themselves.

Monica revisited South America in 1962. She met John Turner in Peru, who showed her the barriadas (shantytowns). Turner was studying how the informal building techniques could be harnessed to provide better quality housing and urban planning. This was another theme that threaded through AD’s issues over the decade.

 Not long after I joined AD, the economic and oil crisis in the early 1970s forced the Standard Catalogue Company to consider the magazine for closure. Monica convinced them to keep it running on a ‘book’ economy – covering all costs from copy sales. AD became more like the alternative magazines that were blossoming at the time – cheap web printing and hand-pasted lithography, in stark contrast to the letterpress of earlier years. Its focus moved away from buildings to alternative energy and lifestyles, studying many of the issues that are high on the environmental agenda today. 

In 1975, Monica moved to edit the RIBA Journal. She stayed until 1979, when I took over. She then started Pidgeon Audio Visual (PAV) in order to publish packs of slides and tapes of architects and designers talking about their work for architecture schools. She continued to add to the recordings until she was in her late eighties. In 2006, the transferral of the Pidgeon archive to digital began. It can be accessed at www.pidgeondigital.com.

Although the world-changing strategies of CIAM, of which she was a close witness, foundered, Monica Pidgeon never lost her view that architecture and architects were agents of social change and improvement, rather than mere decorators and formgivers.

Peter Murray worked at AD from 1969 to 1974. He is chairman of Wordsearch and New London Architecture

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