Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The major British figures of the past 60 years
The BBC’s quest to name quintessential New Elizabethans included only one architect (Norman Foster). Since any era is significantly defined by its buildings, it set me thinking about who exactly the major figures have been.
Certainly the bias would be towards the latter part of Her Majesty’s 60-year reign, though Powell & Moya were active for four decades, from their Churchill Gardens competition win in 1953 to completion of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in 1986.
Their brand of humane Modernism was in marked contrast to more conventional figures such as Sir Albert Richardson and Sir Howard Robertson.
Other figures stand out from the 1950s and 60s. For more than two decades the best-known architect in the country was Sir Basil Spence, like Lord Foster, a holder of the Order of Merit, awarded personally by the Queen.
Spence was a Modernist brought up in the classical tradition; somehow his brand of English contemporary caught the mood of the post-war nation, particularly the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. His Rome embassy was controversial, but less so than his monumental office design for the Home Office, castigated by this magazine in the early 1970s.
The other great controversial architect was Richard Seifert, an unabashed commercial practitioner who the development world loved. He won you planning permissions. His stock has risen in recent years, not least because of the listing of Centre Point.
Less well-known but nevertheless influential, George Grenfell Baines introduced the idea of architecturally-led multidisciplinary working with the founding of Building Design Partnership in 1961; and practices like YRM and GMW provided a strong backbone for the profession, which at this time always premiated social building above commercial, through active firms like Architects’ Co-Partnership and more theoretical architects such as the Smithsons.
Sir Denys Lasdun was a major figure for three decades, largely because of the National Theatre complex and the Royal College of Physicians building, and the head-on Brutalism they represented, though on that score one should not underestimate the influence of Lyons Israel Ellis Gray, now almost forgotten, but a breeding ground for talented designers, not least James Stirling and James Gowan, who emerged as the most exciting new talent of the 1960s – along with ABK, who span much of the Elizabethan era from the Trinity College Dublin library competition win in 1961 to their last major building, the Moscow Embassy in 2000.
Stirling was a giant in the profession in several ways. He extended the language of Modernism and became the first (and possibly only) post-Modernist to win the RIBA Gold Medal, dying tragically early when there were more buildings to come. He came from the generation who had fought in World War II, and whose attitude to architecture and life had a robustness not always evident in today’s young things.
By the time of the Royal Academy’s 1986 exhibition, ‘Foster Rogers Stirling’, it was the two younger men who had assumed centre stage in the mind of the public. Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre competition win made him an international figure early in his career and by the time he completed the Lloyd’s building he was a major figure, but ultimately overtaken by Norman Foster, who created the UK’s first truly global practice.
Let’s remember at the same time other giants de nos jours: Hopkins, Grimshaw, Farrell, Hadid, Chipperfield and Alsop. They have built so much, while others achieved influence by building little, notably Cedric Price. New Elizabethans all, they marked their age.