David Watkin

I attended a Requiem Mass for David Watkin in the Minster in King’s Lynn:  the full works:  Tridentine liturgy, Mozart, with a funeral address by Roger Scruton.   It’s what he would have wanted – magnificent, theatrical, a service which hasn’t been seen in King’s Lynn since the Reformation:-

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Oceania (1)

I got up early in order to join the ceremonial procession of the various representatives from the islands whose artefacts are being shown in the RA’s great exhibition on Oceania.   They assembled in Green Park and then processed down Piccadilly, past the Wolseley, and into the courtyard of the Royal Academy, where the majority went into the exhibition to bless the artefacts:-

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Drawing

I’ve just received through the post a copy of a new book called Drawing and Seeing: Create Your Own Sketchbook. It’s been produced by Clara Drummond who, after working as an assistant to Jonathan Yeo, did an MA at what was then the Prince’s Drawing School (now Royal). In 2016, she won the BP Portrait Award with a portrait of Kirsty Buchanan, a fellow artist. The book is a primer, encouraging anyone and everyone to experiment with the practice of drawing, introduced by Peter Blake, who was Professor of Drawing at the RA and gave every student the basic kit of sketchbook, pencil, sharpener and rubber, not a great expense. I like the way that the book is enlivened with quotes from artists – Emil Nolde ‘Everywhere I looked, nature was alive, in the sky in the clouds, atop every stone, and between the branches of the trees – everywhere lived and stirred my wild and lively creatures, clamouring to be put in my sketchbook’ and Lucian Freud ‘I’m never inhibited by working from life. On the contrary, I feel more free’. I wish I had been given a copy of the book when I was six, to encourage the discipline, which she and many others advocate, of drawing every day.

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Robert Venturi (3)

Since discovering this morning that a former President of the RIBA ruled that a nomination for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for the Gold Medal was out of court, to such an extent that he offered to take his clothes off if the suggestion was pursued further, I have tried to figure out why such a likeable, thoughtful, knowledgeable, influential and all round good egg should have stirred up such deep and long-standing animosity in the British architectural profession.

Part of the answer must lie in the house which he designed for his mother in Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia in the early 1960s which, contrary to all the orthodoxies of the time, was playful, clever (possibly too clever) and based on a free, intellectually informed attitude towards the language of classicism.   It was implicitly rude to the high priests of modernism by being jocular which the high priests of modernism and their followers have absolutely hated, both then and ever since.

Next, there is Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966.   This, which is a scholarly examination of the benefits of mannerism in architecture – visual depth, historical reference, the importance of Hawksmoor – has been one of the most influential architectural monographs of all time, but I suppose is correspondingly reviled for encouraging students to think that architecture is an intellectual language, not just a case of problem-solving modernism.

Worse was to come.   Learning from Las Vegas was written jointly with, and quite obviously inspired by, Denise Scott Brown’s passionate interest in the problems posed to the architectural profession by the deep popularity of Las Vegas (although they had known one another previously, and taught courses together at the University of Pennsylvania, they fell in love in Las Vegas).   The idea that popular taste might be worth studying was, and maybe still is in some circles, taboo.

Worst of all, and most unforgiveable, was that they were offered the job of designing an extension to the National Gallery after not one, but two competitions, involving all the biggest players of the British architectural scene.   But this was hardly their fault.   They were recommended by Ada Louise Huxtable who was on the jury and Bob won over the Trustees by his knowledge of Roman architecture, his interest in Soane, and his belief that an art gallery should not just be an architectural statement, but about the display of art.

You can see where I stand on this issue.   I think Venturi and Scott Brown – slightly differently – were and are incredibly important architects, who already do, and forever will, belong to the Pantheon.

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Robert Venturi (2)

I thought I should pay my respects to the Sainsbury Wing on my way into work: a building which is now taken for granted, taking its place in the corner of Trafalgar Square uncontroversially, such that it is hard now to remember what fierce emotions it aroused at the time, even to the extent that a recent President of the RIBA threatened to strip if Venturi and Scott Brown were considered as candidates for the Gold Medal. It was never an easy site: next door to the Wilkins Building which holds the north side of the Square, but would have been easy to overwhelm. Venturi and Scott Brown chose to be independent minded, neither imitate, nor compete:-

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Robert Venturi (1)

As has been pointed out, my blog is at risk of becoming a necropolis.

The latest member of my private pantheon to die is Robert Venturi, the shy, scholarly, thoughtful partner of Denise Scott Brown, who were architects of the Sainsbury Wing in this country and of many buildings and masterplans, particularly of museums and universities, on the other side of the Atlantic. 

It was Bob who wrote to congratulate me on my appointment at the National Gallery.  I wrote to ask them to come and see me next time they were in London, which was not long afterwards, and I remember being walked round the building being shown all the idiosyncracies of its details by them both.   It had been a somewhat painful episode for them.   They felt that they had been hired as if they were orthodox neoclassicists, designing in the style of Wilkins, but they were postmodern classicists, playing complicated games with the language of classicism.   They wanted a window out onto the street at the end of the long central vista through the middle of the building.   The Trustees refused.   It became a battle between enclosure and permeability, between orthodoxy of taste and the idea of the relationship between art and public space – the forum.

I had hoped to see them when I was in Philadelphia in the spring, but I now realise that he was already suffering from Alzheimer’s.   It means that the RIBA can now never rectify the historic injustice that they were never awarded its Gold Medal.   But they will live on through their writings, their impact on taste, his advocacy of mannerism and hers of popular taste, at least as much as through their buildings.

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David Lowenthal

I have been very sad to discover (on twitter) that David Lowenthal, the great historian, social geographer, and student of public institutions of history has died.

I got to know him in the late 1980s when he set up a postgraduate research seminar at the Warburg Institute on ‘The Uses of the Past’ jointly with Peter Burke.   It attracted an eclectic group of people from museums, including Robert Bud from the Science Museum and Nick Merriman, now the Director of the Horniman Museum, as well as a group of us from the V&A.   I remember it as an exhilirating period of intellectual enquiry about the nature of museums and how they interpret and present history, some of which had been evident in David’s great book The Past is a Foreign Country, first published in 1985.

I have kept in touch with him ever since, meeting not as often as I would have liked, in his rambling house in Harrow-on-the-Hill and more recently on Marylebone High Street, or at our house, where he complained about having to go home in spite of being well into his nineties.

Over the years, I got to know elements of his history:  a period teaching in the West Indies in the 1950s;  a long period working for the Institute of Race Relations under Philip Mason, a mentor to him, in the 1960s;  a Professor of Geography in the University of London from 1972.   The point was that he was old and wise, unbelievably well read on every topic, and fascinatingly unclassifiable as a man of learning like his books.

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Demis Hassabis

We had the first of the Rothschild Foundation’s annual lectures last night, given by Demis Hassabis, a wunderkind of the artificial intelligence world, early chess champion, inventor of Theme Park, an internationally important computer game, when he was 17, before reading computer science in Cambridge and doing a PhD. on cognitive neuroscience.   He talked about how far the new generation of computers has developed creativity, based on the contrast between the first generation computer which was able to beat a world champion at chess and the next generation which could develop unexpected and counter-intuitive moves at Go, a more complicated game not susceptible to mere mechanical memory of moves.   He went on to show the way artificial intelligence can be applied to medicine – easy to see – and art – maybe less obvious, because art is not the product of any underlying systematic order.   But he certainly made it clear that the world is going to change as machines radically outpace the capabilities of humans in so many spheres.

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Denise Scott Brown (2)

Following my post yesterday about Denise Scott Brown and her article ‘Room at the Top ? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture’, written in 1975 and not published till 1989, I have been trying to find out more about her career, separately from the work she did jointly with her husband, Bob Venturi, after they met at Penn in 1960.   I had not realised that she worked under Frederick Gibberd in the early 1950s when she arrived in London from South Africa, before studying at the AA.   It was in London that she first became interested in popular culture:  ‘As a continuing industrial romantic – one now nostalgic and, after Vietnam, sadder and wiser about technology – I continued to photograph pylons, bridges, pumps, freeways, and juxtapositions of these.  But by the 1950s I was surveying, as well, the shocking things of popular culture, advertising and communication’.   So, Learning from Las Vegas owes its origins to the proto-pop culture of the mid-1950s and This is Tomorrow.

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Spitalfields Streets

Fournier Street from the church steps:-

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The Wilkes Street façade of Anna Maria Garthwaite’s house:-

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4, Princelet Street, next door to Anna Maria Garthwaite:-

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Further down Princelet Street:-

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The street sign for Sclater Street, off Brick Lane:-

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And what’s left of the railway track:-

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