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Ian Martin: The Aesthetic Doppler Effect

Ian Martin
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Remembering Crispin Sumption, legendary architectural essayist and bon viveur

MONDAY I’ve been asked to redesign the American political landscape, which has been ruined lately by some heavy excavation and mudslinging.

I go for a ‘sporting garden of remembrance’ feel, but I’m uneasy. Can’t help thinking my pitcher’s mound looks very like a grassy knoll.

TUESDAY To a conference, Beyond Crossrail. Summary: Transrail, Cisrail, Infrarail, Darkrail, Trumprail, Virgin Death Camp East Coast Line, Infinity Hyperloop, Buffers Snack Stop. 

WEDNESDAY In the morning, design a cancer hub. In the afternoon, design a depression nexus. In the evening, design a stroke fascitorium.

THURSDAY To the charming Beat Modernist parish church of Christ, Son of the Daddio in Saxmundham for the funeral of Crispin Sumption, legendary architectural essayist and bon viveur. 

Sumption was famous for his excoriating column in the fledgling Creative on Sunday and for his theory – controversial in London’s architectural clubland even during the late 60s – of ‘lateral social tabulation’, by which his drinks bill was routinely transferred to someone else’s.

The service is a sad, modest affair. As so often these days, those who should remember the past heroes of epic space have themselves succumbed to dementia. Poor Geordie Blix, once the life and soul of every Georgian Rout, every PVC Night at the Institute of Plasmic Arts. Bless him, he thinks we’re here as competition judges. He pronounces the church ‘hideously retro. Bourgeois, camp … No no no. Four out of ten’.

He has a point. The design of Christ, Son of the Daddio was hugely influenced by Sumption’s contrarian essay on Telecommunications and the New Divine. Inspired by the piece, a stoned Anglican church commissioned fabbist collective Hexagon to design this ‘far-out faithpad’ with its odd pentagrammic plan, plastic rood screen, psychedelic stained glass and a campanile eerily reminiscent of the Post Office Tower.

Sumption wasn’t just avant-garde. He was savant avant-garde

Sumption also wrote for Hauteurly Quarterly in those days under the pseudonym ‘Jack Basildon’. A fierce champion of Prog Modernism, he hung out with the hippies and shakers of Swinging London – popsters making their musique concrète, brutesters banging out their architecture cemental. Sumption wasn’t just avant-garde. He was savant avant-garde. He’d see every fad coming a mile off and was able to calibrate its demise even before it had begun. 

For instance, that craze for ‘walking cities’ in pre-punk Britain. Strange to think that, one mad summer, exhilarated architects were readying themselves for something called UPCP – the universal perambulating conurbation principle. Even smallish market towns were expected to hop about a bit. Sumption predicted all this years before it happened and is now ironically credited with having invented it, first as a joke and later as a trope. 

Other theories floated briefly in Sumption’s Phage In The Machine column included electricity cables made of vapour, ‘façade obversion’, the Aesthetic Doppler Effect which causes us to believe that great buildings lower their tone slightly as we go past them, tunable spindles, and the piloti miniskirt as a metaphor for leggy Modernism, itself a metaphor for Corbusian prurience.

Sumption succumbed to what in those Space Age days we called ‘alco-loco psychosis’ and was sacked by everybody in 1972. Defiantly, he continued to write a weekly column. He would drive around the country in his car, knocking at subscribers’ doors or dropping in unsolicited at their ateliers and reading his thoughts aloud to them. A flurry of complaints and arrests did little to dampen his enthusiasm. 

As his columns became increasingly opaque he sought ever more innovative ways of getting them out. One week saw a blitz of fly-posting – one essay on the subject of The Italian Queer Style was plastered the length of Portland Place. Until its confiscation, a powerful megaphone of the sort used by canvassing politicians was fixed to his beloved Morris Minor, Sumption’s barked polemic echoing along the suburban streets he so despised, and therefore championed. The advent of CB radio brought him a new, small, baffled audience. 

Rest in peace, Crispin Sumption. Alias Jack Basildon. Ah, the world of architecture will not see your aka again.  

FRIDAY Give Prague a spec mental do-over, making sure to refenestrate it. 

SATURDAY Formal bruncheon at the new US Embassy, now nearing completion and looking less like a cube than a die. Above the entrance, the humorous inscription ‘Feeling lucky, punk?’ 

SUNDAY Ideas competition. Personal development rejected in favour of conservation. Remain in recliner.

Illustration by Hanna Melin

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