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 the President of the RIBA recently 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:-
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s so rare that Christ Church, Spitalfields is open when I’m in the neighbourhood that I braved their five o’clock service to remind myself of its interior, till recently a noble ruin, now a touch over-restored and with purple fluorescent lighting. But I had forgotten that it contains – very appropriately – a monument to Jim Stirling (designed by Celia Scott):-