Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


  • Comment

Before the 1950s, English architects who aspired to be intellectuals tended to be marginalised in the prevailing climate of pragmatism.

Entering a new post-war order, Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson combined the roles of designer and thinker more completely than any other English architect of his generation.

His in uence was disseminated through teaching, writing and lecturing, and through practice, particularly with the large office required for the British Library project.

The son of a bishop, Wilson seems to have reproduced in secular form an almost ecclesiastical structure of doctrine and revelation.

Wilson's training at the wartime Cambridge School and the post-war Bartlett left him hungry for the authentic:

the old in the form of Italian travels; and the new at the ICA and the LCC, where in 1950 he found himself alongside Bill and Gill Howell, John Killick and Peter Carter. They were all beneath the star of Le Corbusier and the Marseilles Unité, which they reimagined with their housing at Roehampton.

Wilson wrote precocious and gutsy columns on architecture for the Observer, finding his lifelong role as a dissident with feet firmly planted in the establishment.

He moved, unwittingly, into a at in Primrose Hill next door to Mary and Reyner Banham.

Thereafter came Saturdays among the artists at the French pub, and Sundays in Oppidans Road, plotting activities for the Independent Group. In 1956 he contributed to the exhibition 'This is Tomorrow', and began to collect work by Paolozzi, Michael Andrews and other contemporaries, which are now housed in his last major work (with Long and Kentish) - the extension to Pallant House in Chichester.

In 1951, Wilson, with Carter and Frank Newby, entered a giant space-frame enclosure into the Coventry Cathedral competition, but he soon turned towards the more material and substantial exemplars of Aalto, Lewerentz and the Corbusier of béton brut.

The writings of Adrian Stokes were a different lodestar from an earlier stage, tugging Wilson towards the sensuous, psychoanalytical and playful aspects of buildings and places.

After the LCC came a period of private practice with Arthur Baker, building sober brick apartments in London before transferring back to Cambridge in 1956 - alongside his wife Muriel, art historian and Arts Council curator - to teach and practice with Leslie Martin. While Martin promoted his updated version of the scientific humanism of the 1930s, Wilson began to diverge from the mini-Modulor phase of his School of Architecture extension.

Alvar Aalto's Gold Medal speech in 1957, in which he spoke out against the 'dictatorship' emerging in Modern architecture, was a revelation to Wilson, and combined with the personality and writing of Christian Norberg-Schultz to create a new perception of the Modernist field as being polarised between head and heart.

In the Martin studio, with Patrick Hodgkinson and others, courtyard projects for student rooms emerged, as built at Harvey Court (1957-62). The Oxford Library group followed in 1959-64, then the William Stone building for Peterhouse and the paired houses in Grantchester Road.

In the USA in 1964, two more defining events occurred.

Wilson attended a symposium on 1930s Modernism and, demoralised by its formalist outlook, responded in print to reclaim the movement's social agenda. He narrowly avoided becoming head of architecture at Yale, but it was there that he met MJ Long, soon to become his second wife and professional collaborator. Spring House, Cambridge, (1965-7) was the partnership's first fruit, a symbol of new vernacular freedom and warmth in materials and plan, but still controlled.

Independently of Martin, Wilson developed the Liverpool Civic Centre, with its pioneering atrium. Then, with Martin, came the first British Library scheme in Bloomsbury, dragged down with the historic decline of the public-sector Modernist machine in all its forms, and from whose ashes the St Pancras project emerged 10 years later. The catalogue of projects narrows inevitably at this point, although the Bishop Wilson Library, Chelmsford (1984), and the library for Queen Mary College (1984-89) deserve mention. Thinking, teaching and writing had ample scope with his professorship at Cambridge from 1974-89. Architectural Reections (1992) and The Other Tradition (1995) embody a persuasive and coherent philosophy of architecture derived from first principles and exemplars such as Lewerentz - historically situated, deep rather than broad, but alive to possibilities.

Like the British Library, these books gave Post-Modern irony a straight answer, not without an acerbic wit and tenderness. As Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite conclude in their 2005 biography of Wilson: 'Aalto recognised in 1930 that fithe organic linefl would not be understood fifor another 100 yearsfl.' Wilson has gone a long way towards explicating this line, and in so doing has borne witness to an 'other' reality that, once acknowledged, makes architecture much richer in its acceptance of 'those damned realities that make up our work'.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

Sign Up for AJ Jobs Alerts

Interview the right candidate on AJ Jobs