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Review - Louisiana and Beyond: The Work of Vilhelm Wohlert

By Isabel Allen

Louisiana and Beyond: The Work of Vilhelm Wohlert.
By John Pardey.
Edition Blondal, 2007. 216pp. £35

In 1958 Vilhelm Wohlert and his partner Jorgen Bo built a demonstration house for an exhibition on the outskirts of Copenhagen, designed to show new trends in housing to the Danish public. With a high unbroken wall separating the house’s public and private faces, it invites comparison with Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion (1929) or his House with Three Courts project (1931). But it’s not a comparison the architects choose to explore. Wohlert says, simply: ‘Jorgen and I never talked much about Mies, he was not very much on our minds.’

It is a testament to John Pardey’s skill as a narrator that he chooses to repeat the comment verbatim. It brings Wohlert’s character off the page, both with its gentle insouciance and its use of the first person plural, which suggests an aptitude for partnership. Louisiana and Beyond portrays an architect who thrived on collaboration with colleagues, but also with clients. It is telling that Wohlert and Bo referred to Knud W Jensen, the client for the Louisiana Museum, as the project’s ‘third architect’.

But the Mies comment also encapsulates the book’s contention that Wohlert’s work should be understood not in terms of mainstream Modernism, but as part of an alternative approach. Pardey characterises this tradition as: ‘Scandinavian Modern. Founded on the legacy of the British Arts and Craft movement, infused with Japanese traditional architecture, and influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Californian Bay Architects’.

It is a description which could equally apply to Pardey’s own work. His love of carpentry and craftsmanship finds an obvious precedent in Wohlert’s output, perhaps most eloquently in the working drawings of chair designs which are both complex – superimposing section, elevation and plan – and engagingly direct. But a close study of Wohlert’s series of private house schemes also suggests parallels with Pardey’s quest to design ‘the perfect courtyard house’.

Pardey is too modest, or too smart, to draw these comparisons himself, or to reference his own work. This is a scholarly account of an architectural career. Completed shortly before Wohlert’s death in May this year, it constitutes a comprehensive assessment of a lifetime’s work, but benefits from the fact that the subject was on hand to supply the necessary information, verification and explanation – and to give a seal of approval to the end result.

But it is also an intensely personal work. The emphasis on working drawings conveys the author’s delight in Wohlert’s draughtsmanship and approach to design. The commentary has the easy warmth of someone entirely at ease with their subject – a rarity in architectural critique. Wohlert was clearly an outstanding architect, but it is the affinity between author and subject which makes Louisiana and Beyond an outstanding book.

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