Of course, I left out the whole of the second half of Theo Crosby’s career, much of which must have been subsumed by the growing international success of Pentagram, based in an old milk dairy in Notting Hill and a large brownstone office building in Manhattan. But he got involved in several unexpected projects. The first was, as Mark Fisher has pointed out, the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, where he was fascinated by the task of authentic wooden reconstruction and was responsible for the 1981 master design, including the use of thatch; the second was, equally surprisingly, the renovation of Unilever House, where he experimented with the reconstruction of art deco detailing between 1978 and 1983; and the third was that he became one of the people who advised the Prince of Wales on his architectural policies in the mid-1980s, helping to devise the credo of A Vision of Britain. All of this made him a slightly unlikely candidate to be an RA, but he was elected an ARA in 1982 and a full RA in 1990, the same year he became Professor of Architecture at the RCA and not long before his death in 1994.
I spent last night at Pentagram in a discussion with Harry Pearce about the design of my book; and this morning I have been reading more about the life of Theo Crosby, one of the founding partners of Pentagram and an eminence grise in the architectural world. He was born in South Africa and studied architecture at the University of Witwatersrand, but left to serve as a driver in the South African armoured division in Italy, where he fell in love with the dense urban texture of Italian hill towns (‘I have come to value that memory, of leisured discussions about very little, of closely built, dirty and beautiful buildings, of well made fittings, of marvellous floors and pavings, gifts to the public’). In London, he joined the office of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, studying sculpture in the evening at Central School where he made friends with his tutors, including Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. In 1953, he became technical editor of Architectural Design under Monica Pidgeon and helped to pioneer its odd mixture of zany graphics and an interest in both history and architectural ideas. It sounds as if he was one of the key influences on the exhibition This is Tomorrow at the ICA, not least because of his long-term interest in the way that architecture can, and should, be combined with other arts. In 1962, he joined Taylor Woodrow to work on the new Euston Station and in 1965 joined two friends from his time at Central School to establish Crosby Fletcher Forbes, a design partnership which in turn, with the arrival of Kenneth Grange, became Pentagram in 1972. What seems clear is that much of the ethos of Pentagram was informed by Crosby’s anti-authoritarian and communitarian ideals which had been established by the spirit of team working in This is Tomorrow.
I’ve just been to Humphrey Ocean’s studio in West Norwood to see his portrait of the PRA unofficially unvelied. It’s in the style of all the portraits which were shown in his exhibition A handbook of modern life at the National Portrait Gallery – quick and spontaneous sketches in gouache which are not intended to be strict likenesses, but convey something of the inner character of the sitter, in this case a certain wry quizzicalness:-
Having heard Peter Palumbo speak so eloquently earlier in the week about his experience of commissioning Mies van der Rohe to design a version of the Seagram building for Mansion House Square, I thought I should visit the exhibition on the subject at the RIBA. It starts with the original scale model demonstrating how Mies planned to open up a big square in front of Lutyens’s Midland Bank by demolishing not just the triangular site occupied by the 348 leasehold properties behind Mappin and Webb, but also the Magistrates Court opposite, which was originally built in 1873 as the National Safe Deposit Company, designed by John Whichcord, and later became the Bank of New Zealand:-
This would have opened up the side view of Mansion House:-
The exhibition includes the full text of a letter sent by Gavin Stamp to the Prime Minister, protesting at a building by ‘a 99-year-old German from another age who is dead’ and a letter sent by Philip Johnson to Gavin Stamp arguing that ‘Mies’ buildings were always placed on rectangular plazas or a straight street. In the casually irregular piece of ground in London the classical rigidity of Miesian language will look strange indeed’. There is also a magnificent tirade sent by Berthold Lubetkin to Building Design denouncing what he describes as ‘a manipulated, contrived judgment promoted by the fashion trade devoid of sensibility, replacing emotions with sentimentality, enlightened criticism with emphatic gesticulation’. But the exhibition has an obvious weakness in not illustrating the alternative scheme drawn up by Terry Farell, which, now that it is part of history, surely belongs as part of the narrative:-
I went to see Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever !, which was indeed packed, thereby fulfilling his first aspiration of democratising the practice of fine art. I’ve always liked his work. It’s funny, ironic, playful and satirical, all of which are disparaged in much art practice, as he knows better than most. I haven’t always liked his tapestries, but very much admire his big Battle of Britain tapestry with its breadth of imaginative detail:-
His work has obviously been permanently influenced by the experience of working closely with the ethnographic collections of the British Museum:-
And there are the usual knowing art critical references:-
As it was a sunny afternoon, I thought I would walk back through Borough Market, I suppose subconsciously wanting to show sympathy for the victims of the recent ghastly atrocity, but also to support the traders whose income must have been knocked. I had forgotten how much I liked it – the mixture of cheese, coffee, cakes and fresh vegetables underneath the railway bridge, luckily having so far resisted too much redevelopment:-
As I was walking through an unfamiliar section of the City at lunchtime today, I remembered that Peter Palumbo had said that the only building Mies van der Rohe wanted to see when he visited London was the headquarters of the Dutch shipping company, Wm. H. Müller & Co. in Bury Street, which was designed by H.P. Berlage in 1914 and built during the early years of the first world war, using Delft tiles on the exterior and with elaborate ornamental interiors designed by Berlage and Bart Van Der Leck, one of the founders of De Stijl:-
If anyone is mad enough to want to watch me being lightly grilled by Amanda Vickery at an event at Queen Mary University of London, you can now watch it on YouTube (https://youtu.be/g0MjxXdCynA).