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Thoughtful Classicist

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review - Raymond Erith: Progressive Classicist 1904-1973 At Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2, until 31 December

Raymond Erith won his first competition (in the Daily Mail, for a row of cottages) when he was 15; in his fifties he restored the interior of 10 Downing Street. It sounds the kind of childprodigy-to-grand-old-man career that might have ended in apoplexy at a Royal Academy banquet, but Erith's career was not like that.

Erith was a thoughtful Classicist greatly respected by Modernists, a principled professional who was not always well treated by the establishment. He was an architect for whom the right solution was much more important than the easy one, and for a time 'a real market-town architect' - doing additions and alterations, and building traditional-looking houses, not for tradition's sake but because tradition had evolved houses that looked right and which worked.

At a time when continental Modernism was just beginning to come to English notice, Erith formed his commitment to the Classical orders while a student at the Architecture Association. 'The 'classic', ' wrote his teachers Robert Atkinson and Hope Bagenal, 'is not a matter of the antique only, it is primarily a standard of value, the result of the best and most universal experiments';

and, like them, Erith never believed that the expression of structure or purpose made automatically for an aesthetically pleasing building. For him, the long-established Vitruvian trinity of strength, utility and beauty were quite distinct, and their integration was what architecture was all about.

For those who were unhappy with Modernism, 'carrying on where Soane left off' would become something of a clichÚ. But Erith saw Soane as much more than a mere source book for (what Osbert Lancaster called) Vogue Regency. In a lecture of 1953 he described Soane in terms he might have applied to himself: 'Soane did not want to change architecture, because he thought architecture was unchangeable. Soane's aim was to make Classical architecture progress and absorb in itself the needs of a new age.' Erith's unexecuted designs of 1948 for a factory and for the TUC headquarters showed how he believed it could be done - in effect, by reinventing the functional tradition before that term had been coined.

What is relevant now? His command of the Classical vocabulary gave him the means to design buildings that were right for their setting, their function and their client. The Sanmichelian gatehouse range for Lady Margaret Hall is defensive, a house for the head of an Oxford college is erudite, and a hill-top folly is suitably jolly in form with a domed roof and a belvedere, and at the same time rustic with coursed rubble and shingles.

Other houses are inventive and frequently witty, yet reassuringly domestic. His meticulous detailing shows the thoroughness of his own observation (two notebooks are on display), and his love of textures, patterns and good masonry shows up even in his eighthscale drawings (his draughtsmanship was astonishing).

Erith would have been horrified by the inanities of much Post-Modernism and by the ignorance of much that passes as traditional building. He abominated pastiche:

for him, Classicism was not style-mongering but was in the bones of his buildings.

He disapproved of Classical facades that disguised incompatible structures: for him, the orders could discipline the use of modern materials and techniques. His buildings are models of a currently undervalued commodity: architectural good manners. Above all, his buildings show the infinite rewards to be had from taking infinite pains.

The exhibition includes many of Erith's drawings, with superb photographs of his buildings by Mark Fiennes. The illustrated catalogue includes useful essays by Erith's daughter Lucy Archer, Kenneth Powell and George Saumarez-Smith (a director of Robert Adam Architect), as well as a memoir of life in Erith's office by Quinlan Terry.

Nicholas Cooper used to work for the RCHME and is on the architectural panel of the National Trust

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