Monica Pidgeon is not all that comfortable with the role of grande dame of British architecture. For 30 years she was the legendary editor of radical architectural monthly Architectural Design. In 1975 she took over the editorship of riba Journal and later founded Pidgeon Audio Visual, for which she has an honorary fellowship from the American Institute of Architects and of which she is still actively boss.
Back in 1970 the riba gave her an honorary fellowship for her services to architecture, and a decade later the aa presented her with a life membership for, you guess, her services to radical architecture and support for the aa. Tomorrow (Friday) she is to be given an honorary diploma of the aa, an honour accorded to only two other people: Denys Lasdun in 1997 and Oscar Niemeyer in 1998. There's a nice symmetry in her becoming an aa diplomate towards the end of her career when at its beginning she had gained a diploma in interior design from the Bartlett, that eternal arch- rival up the other end of Gower Street.
She sits there, slight and smiling for the photographer in the sunlight in her Walter Segal-designed Highgate house, and affects to not know precisely what the aa is giving her. Her diffidence is to do with the fact that, so she declares, unlike Lasdun and Niemeyer, she has not been a 'creative' person. By that you imagine that she means she hasn't designed buildings. And, unlike contemporary theorists and critics, she hasn't written a great deal. But what she has is an unerring instinct for architects who have or are about to have something significant to say or design. Hers has been the role of inspired facilitator, what philosopher Paul Clodel inventively describes as une ensembliere.
Born in Chile of expatriate parents and educated there, Pidgeon came to England in her late teens and after the Bartlett ('tedious') under Richardson ('awful but a fantastic lecturer in history') she married a fellow student, architect Raymond Pidgeon, and went to work as a furniture designer for Michael Dawn.
A refugee from a mindless war job at the Ministry of Supply, she started work at ad in 1940, ghosting for its editor John Towndrow, who had been seconded to the Ministry of Works. At the end of the war he went to Australia to found a new architecture school and Pidgeon took over with, for a time, Barbara Randall. She was soon at the centre of things, attending ciam and uia congresses and publishing as much as post-war restrictions allowed. She was on the organising committee of the 1951 ciam Bridgewater congress.
A stunner, in the words of one contemporary, her dark beauty peers out between the serious countenances of the European heavies in the official photograph of the event. Although she was to be a lifelong supporter of the Smithsons, she says: 'I didn't go along with Team 10's argument about killing ciam. They were feuding with Gideon and the only way to get rid of him was to kill ciam. So I never went to a Team 10 meeting.'
Soon the international circuit began to drop in on ad to pay its collective and individual respects to Pidgeon and to show her their latest ideas and designs. Conjure up a name from the post-war architectural pantheon and Monica knew them, and most of them paid homage. It wasn't always given or reciprocated. A mars Group member, she first met Corb at the presentation of his riba gold medal. 'I didn't like him. He said, 'I can't bear journalists and even worse are women journalists.' Yet you would see him at a congress at the end of a morning's discussion on a seemingly insoluble architectural issue and he would take out his coloured pencils and within five minutes he would solve all the problems.'
Pidgeon has always had good people around her. As well as external friends such as Bucky and Alvin Boyarsky there were the in-house 'boys', as she called them. Theo Crosby, fresh from the This is Tomorrow exhibition was a breath of fresh air for eight years who encouraged her to publish artists such as Hamilton and Paolozzi. There was Kenneth Frampton, Robin Middleton, Peter Murray and, at the end of her time when the owner, Standard Catalogues, decided to pull the plug, Martin Spring and Haig Beck.
Peter Murray, ad's art editor during the early 70s, recalls: 'We started work at 11.30 and finished around 7.30. It meant we could do our freelance commissions before ad. We all worked around one big table and were all absolutely terrified of her. But for all her sternness, she gave us enormous encouragement and freedom. And she has this very good nose about what is going on and picking people. Sometimes you felt she didn't herself always know why she thought this person or that was someone to watch. It was an unerring instinct.'
Looking back over issues of ad, especially during the golden years of the 60s when ad was read all over the young, radical architectural world, she dealt with issues which to readers of the establishment architectural magazines seemed close to madness: Archigram, energy conservation, greenness, the city, the Third World, ultra-new technology, inflatable buildings, underwater living, Cedric Price. These are things which today we find unexceptional as topics of inquiry, but which all those years ago turned respectable architects puce with anger. As Peter Murray says: 'the loss is that we don't have what Monica gave us, a vehicle for the architectural arguments of the day.'