Denys Lasdun, the former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and a recipient of its Gold Medal, occupies a unique place in the history of British Modern architecture. By virtue of his birth date, his career brackets the introduction and subsequent (in the 1960s) transformation (but not repudiation) of Modern architecture in his country. Trained at the Architectural Association from 1931 to 1934, Lasdun immediately allied himself with the small number of progressive designers in conservative Britain who, in the 1930s, sought to plant on English soil the principles of functionalism, which Lasdun calls "a purifying agent in the architectural process... demanding that design be underpinned by reason and research to produce a sane and purposeful architecture" (1984).
Already in the 1930s, Lasdun was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier, who was, despite the arrival in that decade of German exiles such as Walter Gropius, the major continental master for British architects. This admiration continued after World War II, when Lasdun exchanged the purist geometries of the International Style he had briefly embraced (residence in Paddington, 1938, which resembled Le Corbusier's Maison Cook) for the sculptural massing and weathered concrete surfaces associated with Brutalism, also inspired to some extent by Le Corbusier's late work. However, Lasdun did reject the Swiss master's ideas on urbanism, which he felt were flawed by the refusal to acknowledge a sense of place and to forge necessary links with tradition, a critique that was complemented by his concept of the urban landscape, which held that a building's fluid and layered interiors should connect with the space of the city, often through platforms or "strate."
On prestigious and less economically stringent institutional and private commissions, such as the Royal College of Physicians (1964) and the luxury duplexes on St. James' Place (1960), Lasdun incorporated lush granite, travertine, terrazzo, mosaic, and richly tinted engineering brick along with the textured concrete to add color and sensuality to the palette of materials. What binds together all his postwar work is the forceful articulation of program to create asymmetrical compositions of great complexity in plan, section, and elevation that extend assertively into the surroundings, whether urban or rural.
His first significant postwar work, the large primary school in Paddington, was completed in 1955 when it was named "Britain's most modern school." The commission originally had come to the British architectural firm Tecton and was done in collaboration with Lindsey Drake, another former partner of the firm. The varied spaces that comprise classrooms, administrative offices, and the auditorium receive vigorous differentiation in height, shape, materials, and fenestration.
By 1957 Lasdun's vocabulary had shifted to the boldly massed, dynamic, and faceted shapes that visually and conceptually link his work not only with general postwar developments in European architecture but also with the English baroque tradition he explicitly cherished, embodied especially in the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Lasdun continued his commitment to socially oriented projects, at that time energetically sponsored by the government to redress a dramatic housing crisis due to wartime damage. His 14-story "cluster" blocks (1955-59) in Bethnal Green, London, were considered very innovative and user-friendly; regrettably, poor maintenance has threatened their continued existence. On each double-height level, four separate sets of two-story apartments are connected by bridges to a central service core. The varied orientation of each of the maisonettes affords unusual privacy to the tenants, and the setbacks of individual facades from the concrete frame identify the spatial system while providing balconies and sun relief. The term cluster derives from Kevin Lynch's writings; Lasdun in turn popularized the concept in Britain, where it was used to combat the rigidity of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) planning and Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse and to emphasize the importance of context.
One of Lasdun's most admired buildings is the Royal College of Physicians in Regent's Park (1964), which won him the Trustees Medal of the RIBA (1992) and has received Grade 1 listing from English Heritage, a signal honor for a 20th-century work. The need for distinctive public and private rooms, some serving ceremonial and others professional purposes, was the ideal challenge for this architect, who revels in clarifying while expressing intricate multipurpose institutional programs. At the same time, he took pains to respect the scale and color of John Nash's neighboring terraces and to maintain the interplay of nature and architecture that George IV's brilliant town planner had achieved. His faith that the design could be expanded if necessary without doing damage to the formal coherence of the initial building was proved justified when he seamlessly added a chapter house and lecture theater in 1995.
The Royal National Theatre (1963-76) is another triumph of sophisticated circulation through areas that serve varied functions, although all were intended to enhance the theatrical encounter. If its unremittingly severe gray surfaces have been criticized, its bold concrete cantilevers and lively silhouette eloquently communicate the National Theatre's purpose and cultural prominence. Lasdun created an impressive theatrical mecca that knits together without confusion three auditoriums of diverse sizes and characters, box offices, bookstores, restaurants, cafes, and waiting areas where musical performances and readings take place. In addition, it is an important element in the cityscape of the South Bank; even those who do not enter make use of the multilevel walkways that offer enticing river views and connect pedestrians with Waterloo Bridge. Lasdun sought through the "strata inside and outside... to capture the fundamental sense of the theatre as a place of gathering and a framework for the experience of visiting the [National Theatre] which takes the city itself as a backdrop" (1984).
In a postwar Britain that was dramatically expanding traditional universities and establishing new ones, Lasdun also played a highly visible role. For the tabula rasa that was East Anglia University (1962-72) outside Norwich, he designed a complex that encompassed housing for students and staff, the library, lecture theaters, and the University and Senate House, conceiving the building as "hills and valleys." He developed his principle of interlocking spaces and stratified terraces further in the residences at Christ's College, Cambridge (1966). For the University of London in Bloomsbury (1965-79), Lasdun prepared a major extension scheme that includes the Institute of Education and the School of Oriental and African Studies; its aggressive massing, bold play of light and shadow, and creation of an academic square within the embrace of the new buildings make the work a quintessential expression of Lasdun's aesthetic.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.