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Robert Maxwell remembers architect and critic Alan Colquhoun (1921 - 2012)

Robert Maxwell, the emeritus professor of architecture at Princeton University, remembers his old friend Alan Colquhoun

Alan Colquhoun was born in 1921, in Esher, Surrey. Because of his Scottish connections he studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, awakening a life-long interest in Cézanne. But after gaining Part I in architecture he transferred to the Architectural Association in London.

In the war, while fighting the Japanese in Burma, he was lightly wounded in the hand and was transferred to a hospital in India, where after convalescence he found himself serving as Adjutant to Depot Battalion in Roorkee, in the Bengal Sappers and Miners. I was posted there in 1946, and we quickly found that we shared an interest in music. He became my oldest friend.

In London we met again at the French pub in Soho, and began to discuss architecture more seriously. Le Corbusier was the news at that time, we all became his followers. Colquhoun, enterprising as always, visited Maisons Jaoul and was photographed there. He worked briefly for Candilis Woods, then went to the LCC. Under Leslie Martin’s direction, he used the Unité at Marseille as model for public housing in London.

At the LCC he made friends with Sandy Wilson, and their Unité at Bentham Road, designed with Peter Carter, was noted for both its monumentality and its daring structure: it had a whole half-bay cantilever at either end. When that was safely built he moved to Lyons Israel and Ellis, taking the place of Jim Stirling. Practice co-founder Tom Ellis also employed Neave Brown, Patrick Hodgkinson, David Gray, and had made a move towards brutalism of a ‘Corbish kind’. There Colquhoun worked with his future partner John Miller, whom he had already met at Sam Stevens’ house in Marylebone High Street.

At around this time Colquhoun and I worked together on a competition entry for offices for the Electricity Board at Kampala, Uganda. Our design, with structure, brise-soleils and window mullions all on different grids, was lively. We didn’t win, but enjoyed the experience. After mulling it over for too long, I approached him with the suggestion that we might form a partnership. ‘Oh, I just signed up with John Miller’, he replied. Soon we were paying attention to the latest designs by Colquhoun and Miller.  

Their first building was Forrest Gate High School (1961-65), then Chemistry Laboratories at Royal Holloway College, both excellent designs of substantial buildings. But the building which brought their name before the general public was their renovation of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1985.

He was drawn towards an alternative career - not doing architecture, but evaluating it

However, while enjoying architecture, Colquhoun must have found the slow pace of getting things built irksome; he was now well-known as a critic of students’ work, and he began to be drawn towards an alternative career, not doing architecture, but evaluating it. He had taken a job at Princeton University, and soon was spending more time in America than in England, while still remaining a partner of John Miller. His mind was incisive, and his sense of logic acute. He began to write about architecture extensively. Articles in various magazines, of course, but also, more importantly, books.

Essays in Architectural Criticism, was published by MIT in 1981, as an Oppositions book, instigated by Peter Eisenman’s Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York ; Modernity and the Classical Tradition, also by MIT, followed in 1989; Modern Architecture, with Oxford University Press in 2002; finally, his Collected Essays in Architectural Criticism by Black Dog in 2009.

He became an authority on architecture, but one who, having practiced it, really knew what he was talking about. I loved his article on French Railway stations in Paris, where his enjoyment of their frontality is offset by his sense of their importance as types.  

His going is a loss to architectural culture

As often happens, his death revealed how influential he had become. His going is a loss to architectural culture, on an international, indeed, on a global scale. His archive has already gone to Columbia University. We will miss him, not only his presence, so reminiscent of Jean Cocteau, but his mind: so clear, so incisive, so illuminating. A light has gone out.     

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