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Colin St John Wilson: Buildings and Projects

by Roger Stonehouse
Black Dog Publishing, London, 2007
509 pp., illus. 161 b/w, 214 col. Trade, $59.95
ISBN: 9781904772705.

Reviewed by Boris Jardine
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge


The timing of this book is most apposite: Colin St John Wilson died only a year ago, and an immediate appraisal of his work is a fitting tribute. Moreover, it comes at a point when the critical response to Wilson’s magnum opus, the British Library, is generally favourable; this, of course, has not always been the case, and it inevitably raises important questions about that great project’s relations to the rest of Wilson’s considerable output of buildings and projects.

To that end, Stonehouse’s text leads us first through Wilson’s residential buildings and work for academic institutions, to his library projects, then his administrative projects and finally his ‘contemplative’ buildings. These sections each have an introduction and each separate project a commentary. The technicality of the text is incremental in the move from introduction to close analysis, and at its most demanding is offset by a magnificent array of photographs and reproduced drawings. This is the body of the book, and it is a triumph: lesser-known projects emerge from the shadow of the British Library, such as Spring House, Cambridge (pp. 146-61), the Bishop Wilson Memorial Library, Chelmsford (pp. 362-7), and the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (pp. 486-95). The British Library itself is a focus but does not overwhelm. Each element of that massive project is shown to have been rehearsed and prototyped elsewhere, most notably in Spring House. This contextualisation will fascinate the British Library’s many admirers and users. In addition, the utilitarian division of the book allows Stonehouse to reiterate Wilson’s chronology; by the end the formal conceits and innovations that constitute his style are plain to see. As a catalogue raisonné, the book is immensely satisfying: the introductory text to each section is discursive and engaging, and the commentaries on each project sufficiently technical and comprehensive – the photographs and drawings are a pleasure to browse.

Over and above the presentation of well-selected images, the book consistently fails to make proper use of its diverse visual material: The margins are wide, but the captions short; diagrams are used throughout to illustrate the technical aspects of Wilson’s work, but infuriatingly they are not labelled. If the aim was to lessen their distraction from the text, this is only achieved as one gradually learns to ignore them. It is a great shame that Stonehouse lays the groundwork of a definitive account of Wilson’s formal development, but, in failing to provide apparatus relevant to a wide audience, leaves the work unfinished.

The incomplete feel is compounded by the three introductory texts. Wilson himself provides the most lucid section, an apologia reproduced from his Architectural Reflections (Oxford: Butterworth Architecture, 1992), though the text introduces some typographical errors not in the original and reprints the footnotes without adapting them to the present purpose. Stonehouse provides a useful formal analysis of Wilson’s career, but the introduction by Eric Parry is a bewildering historical montage; a simple biographical sketch would have been more apt.

However, these limitations are more distracting than stifling, and what emerges from the rest of the text is Wilson’s highly developed formal language, consistently expanded and justified throughout his career. That language can be divided roughly into the elegant concept of ‘natural imagination’ that was outlined and elaborated in Architectural Reflections, and the increasingly sophisticated details of his designs. The former – a theoretical foundation or langue – is a psychoanalytically informed response to the strictures of the CIAM and the first generation of Modern architects. To their harsh functionalism Wilson adds a flexibility and humanism inherited from Alvar Aalto, and his own concepts of enclosure and exposure, which charge the building with bodily and emotional significance. The latter – the parole of Wilson’s projects – are enigmatically displayed by Stonehouse in a chart and two plans, which represent the genealogical relationship and chronological incorporation of his various signatures: the open court, aedicule, hanging garden, loggia, and so on. Observing the interaction between concept and product is a delight; in this way Stonehouse has given us both historicist and formalist readings of Wilson’s work. The perennially tricky topic of the relationship between pre- and post-war architecture is handled with great subtlety, and the technical minutiae of Wilson’s finest achievements comprehensively without being too dry and technical.



Updated 1st April 2008

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