Friday, December 14, 2012

Alan Colquhoun 1921 - 2012

BD Online reports today the death of British architect and critic Alan Colquhoun at the age of 91 (free registration required).

While known in the US mainly as a critic -he taught at Princeton in the 1970's and published in Oppositions- in Britain he is also known for his architecture, as Owen Hatherley recounted in the same magazine last November:
"As a historian and theorist of architecture, Colquhoun’s rigorous and often harsh, pessimistic writing put him closer to the neo-Marxist history of Manfredo Tafuri than the alternately guilt-ridden or coldly technocratic literature of British post-modernism."
"As an architect ... Colquhoun was behind some of the most interesting housing in post-war Britain, favouring an austere idiom equally hostile to the picturesque, tamed modernism of the Festival of Britain as it was to the concrete gymnastics of much Brutalism."
All this means he tilted horns with the New Brutalists, Reynar Banham, Rogers, Foster, and his pet peeves, Buckminster Fuller and the Pompidou Center. In the United States, Hatherley maintains,
"It could be argued that the neo-avant-garde formalism of Eisenman and the New York Five, and their pessimistic assessment of any possibility of “political” architecture, owed much to Colquhoun."
And in his last book, a history of modern architecture, Hatherley reports,
"....Colquhoun wrote a final, darkly funny attack on the Fun Palaces and New Babylons of the 1968 generation, seeing the end result as little more than “boredom and claustrophobia”. And looking at much 21st century architecture, who could disagree?"
 Not much fun is he, not much fun at all.

December 21, 2012
DD Online has now published testimonials to Colquhoun by several colleagues, as well as  Kenneth Frampton's tribute , which puts into sharper focus his work as an architect and thinker than the comments cited above.

My favorite testimonial is by Robert Maxwell, former Dean of the Princeton architectural department and another expat Brit in the States, who first met Colquhoun "in 1946 when we were both in the Bengal Sappers and Miners, at Roorkee, India."

His report includes these gems:
"Alan enjoyed a large bungalow with high clerestory windows, and my memory is of us lying on camp beds a few inches off the ground listening to Mozart’s piano quartet while a grave old gentleman called a punkah-wallah pulled a hanging sail to and fro to make a draught."
"At Rookee, after dinner in the mess we would lie on low wooden chairs waiting for sunset. As soon as the sun went down a beautiful fragrance from the flowering shrubs wafted over us, renewing our hopes for tomorrow. But by then Colquhoun had already left."
Frampton praises Colquhoun's work and nuanced thinking, but nevertheless ruefully notes his rough spots:
"Considerate, gracious and gallant, Alan as a lifelong bachelor was a romantic who remained categorically anti-romantic. He was unfailingly an outspoken critic who did not suffer fools gladly, which no doubt accounts for our occasional exchanges as to merits and demerits of regionalism, critical or otherwise."
No folks, I am not making this up, this is not a Monty Python skit: Colquhoun knew very well how not to have a good time.

In the sharper focus department, Frampton is worth quoting at length:
"Trained in Edinburgh and the AA, Alan would remain as removed from the technocratic euphoria of Banham and the British hi-tech movement, as from the neo-vernacular Swedish welfare state style adopted by the left-wing architects of the LCC ([London County Council]. Within this line-up his affinities lay with his Corbusian colleagues at the LCC, as we may judge from his contribution to what was then a typical LCC unité duplex block, completed in the London borough of Hackney around 1958."

"Influenced by the Warburg generation of Germanic émigré intellectuals, by Gombrich, Cassirer, Wittkower et al, Alan was committed to continuing the rational humanism of the pre-war Modern Movement, to which the early work of Colquhoun and Miller bears ample testament; above all their Stratford Secondary School in the East End of London of 1962 and the chemistry laboratories that they designed and realized for the Royal Holloway College, Egham in 1970."

"Alan’s subsequent involvement with the School of Architecture, Princeton University at the end of the 60’s brought him into contact with Tomas Maldonado who, along with the Spanish aesthetician Tomas Llorens exiled in Portsmouth, would have introduced him to the Neo-Marxist thought of the Frankfurt School with which his writing was subtly infused throughout the remainder of his career."
Note the link to Tomás Llorens: the point man it would seem for Rafael Moneo's entry into the Oppositions circle; the two were colleagues at the Barcelona journal Arquitectura Bis.

Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change
Oppositions Books, 1981.

Modernity and the Classical Tradition: Architectural Essays 1980-1987
The MIT Press, 1991. Spanish edition available.

Collected Essays in Architectural Criticism
 Black Dog Publishing, 2008.

Modern Architecture (Oxford History of Art)
Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Available in Spanish as:
 La arquitectura moderna: Una historia desapasionada
 Gustavo GIli, 2005

Oase 87 - Alan Colquhoun. Architect, Historian, Critic
Articles by Tom Avermaete, Kenneth Frampton, Francoise Fromonot, Christoph Grafe, Owen Hatherley, Christian Kieckens
 NAI, 2012

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