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Celebrating Ivor Richards - 30 years on

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There came a point during Professor Ivor Richards' inaugural lecture on 'The Legacy of Modernism' at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne when he mentioned 'the one thing I can do: draw'. It was an aside, but a revealing one, for it hints at his way of teaching, which is founded on architectural practice of a high level. The retrospective exhibition of his work, which opened on 25 February and runs until today at the Architecture Gallery at the university's Department of Architecture, supports this.

Richards' drawings are not ends in themselves; they are made as studies or production information for real buildings. Of course, for non-professionals the fact that architects draw might be thought a truism. Insiders know different. But even in academic life where, by definition (as well as by the more recent prompts of Research Assessment Exercises), architecture is often more theoretical, there is an implicit understanding that to make a drawing is to re-think precedent, to explore, to criticise.

Richards was clear that Modernism was established as a tradition mature enough to engage with its own history and shed light on its origins. In Kristian Gullichsen's phrase, it was 'a goldmine we would be foolish not to explore'. Though such work might highlight the early moderns' more simplistic attitude to relationships between buildings and the world, it could still demonstrate essential design concepts and disciplines now as important to architecture students as the Orders, or the typologies of Durand.

The question was how to organise it all. Dismissing both the simplicities of the International Style and the 'formal and semantic chaos' which students now had to confront in published architecture which tells us nothing about the making of buildings, Richards asked for an architectural equivalent to 'scales, harmonies and technique which distil music from cacophony'. His own proposal (originally developed with Catherine Cooke for a DOCOMOMO lecture at the Bauhaus in 1992) is a development of Heinrich Klotz's three paradigms of modern architecture: geometric/cubist, organic/ crystalline, and constructive/technical. To these he adds planar enclosure and (as an over-arching concern) an ecological conscience. Perhaps most importantly, he insists that in the work of master architects particular strands should be examined in the context of a 'tectonic narrative' which can take account of developing lines of thought in the output of an individual architect or group of collaborators.

Even though Richards said his aim in this categorising was 'the teacher's first duty to the novice: a clear and reasoned account of how we got here', one suspects that his students will gain at least as much from his own example. As a lecturer, he states a point of view with conviction and passion: his description of 'the sunny uplands of modern architecture' where the 'freedom to manoeuvre' (Klotz's phrase) naturally developed multiple variations determined by local culture, geography and traditions, had all the clear optimism of Vers Une Architecture. He also carries with him the authority and determination of the practitioner who has grappled with formal difficulties in complex programmes, sought out and deeply understood innumerable precedents, and had the range of technical and collaborative skills to carry an idea through to a built reality.

The exhibition, designed to show the work of their teacher to the students, includes samples of collaborative projects and buildings with past students, colleagues David Raven and Colen Lumley, and of course Richards' great mentor, Sir Leslie Martin.

There are set pieces too: an Aalto stool hints at the formative influence of early visits to Finland in the 1960s, and an engagement with a tradition of making in timber; lithographs and collages by Richard Meier remind one of Richards' forthcoming book.

Display cases contain a mass of publications and reviews by or about Richards, plus more intimate things: menu cards, books from Meier, a Ben Nicholson maquette, an Aalto vase with red anemones, a drawing on a napkin, photographs of the children.

There is a courage in this personal approach. At the start of his lecture Richards spoke of the King's Mill at Great Shelford near Cambridge where he worked with Sir Leslie Martin for 18 years. To go there was, he said, 'a homecoming'. It was an environment of timber and plain white enclosed by fourfoot-thick brick walls by the side of the mill race. It was a calm place where work was given nobility as a rewarding activity and where thought was as important as action. To add teaching and research to practice of that sort, which Ivor Richards has made his own, is a completion, not a change.

Charles Rattray is an architect. He teaches at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen

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