In a recent book by Richard Weston entitled 'Modernism' he concludes with what I think is quite an ambiguous paragraph. He writes "Although Modernism has repeatedly been consigned to history; in the mid 1990s reports of its death seem greatly exaggerated". He continues and concludes by saying that "much art and design in the 1990s seems to be merely rummaging over history or living off the astonishing creative outburst of early Modernism, rather than extending or transforming the tradition of the new". In many ways this talk is really about our search for an extension or transformation of the Modern tradition which is inevitably in its early stages and ongoing. In the search I think it's the work of the so-called second generation Modernist that particularly engages me, and in particular the work of Aalto. Aalto, his work for me represented a sort of intermediary between human life and the natural landscape, and of course, in searching for an authentic Finnish identity, Aalto extended the language of Modernism and imbued it with such considerations as place, tradition, culture and the 'little man' as he referred to it. Each building was marked by a particular response to a particular site, to a particular place, and to a particular brief; but underpinning that was always a very rigorous application of certain principles. We don't really apply a rigorous manifesto, but our work is very much about an approach which is concerned with space, composition with form, proportion, light and material; but all within this framework of contextual and tectonic rigour. I'm going to - by way of largely referencing the Stirling Prize-winning building, the Centenary Building for the University of Salford - I'm going to demonstrate how that approach is applied, but more particularly show what informed the Centenary Building and indeed what it is now informing.
In 1992 we won a competition for an extension to St. Catherine's College, Oxford. St. Catherine's of course is by the great Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. The buildings sit on what is known locally as a plinth, a sea of concrete flags on which his buildings are disposed and vary in a sort of symmetrical arrangement. To the east and west are two long residential blocks and then, running down the centre, from the south to the north, are a lecture theatre, a library, the main dining room and then the senior common-room and junior common-room Within that symmetry there's a tremendous formalism But that's in the way in which you move around the place. There's a very informal way in which the landscape is arranged and is now matured. Jacobsen was trained in the Nordic neo-Classical movement and his great mentor and friend was Asplund. But he was also very much influenced by Mies. And for me, I think that St. Catherine's somehow represents the culmination and merging of these two approaches. The competition was to extend the College. The site was not being particularly identified, which posed some quite interesting problems. Ultimately we were to look at the car park site, which is to the north of the main college at the entry to the site. And that's significant because the entry to the College had always been compromised. Jacobsen had wanted the College to acquire land so that they would enter axially onto his interpretation of the collegiate courtyard. And because of that, the College never acquired the land and because of that, the entrance has always been compromised. Our extension, which was for some 100 study bedrooms, was to be implemented in two phases. Conceptually and diagrammatically the idea was the car park had to be retained. And the idea was for a garden wall to surround the car park on which, and astride which, were arranged pavilions containing study bedrooms. Intriguingly, Jacobsen had used this idea of the garden wall in unifying all the buildings on the place; such that the residential wings, the two storeys of glazing, float over the garden wall; in the case of the library, the library is clad in bronze panels which equally float over the garden wall. And this unifies the buildings but at the same time offers a very human scale to the ensemble. My idea of using the garden wall and acknowledging the precedent was an attempt to - because our building was essentially beyond the cleated wall - was an attempt somehow to try and use material, use the wall as a common reference point for the undergraduates that would be living there.
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