The Royal College of Physicians was the building that propelled Denys Lasdun into the big time. Charles Holland diagnoses the causes of its success
A typewritten note from the minutes of the building committee of the Royal College of Physicians records that: "Leonard Wolfson ... disliked the roof of the main building, disliked the roof of the Lecture Hall and thought the link with the building in St Andrew's Place was aesthetically bad. He considered the entrances inadequate, the toilets inadequate and the whole building looked like a battleship."
More interesting than Wolfson's dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of the building's design is the fact that this detached, professional note was written by the building's architect, Denys Lasdun. Such robustness wasn't what I expected from him; in a moving profile of his father in Modern Painters magazine, James Lasdun recalls him lying on
Self-doubt doesn't seem to be present in the building Lasdun designed for the RCP. It has an uncanny assurance and decisiveness, a sense that it couldn't have been any other way. As Rowan Moore points out in the book accompanying this exhibition, the building is both complex and didactically straightforward – as if the final result is a distillation of myriad decisions made along the way.
As Moore makes clear, Lasdun conceived of the building as an organism, making an analogy not only with the human body but with the professional and social "body" that it houses. The exhibition text notes the time he spent observing the college's day-to-day routine as well as its more formal rituals.
The result is a building that, for all its expressive bravado, is also remarkably respectful of tradition. The theatricality of the central stair and the careful staging of moments within the ceremonial life of the institution – such as the twin doors into the examination room that allow for a humble entry and hopefully triumphant exit – are housed inside a modernist, collagist interior.
Within this collage, Lasdun includes elements from the RCP's previous homes – most notably the timber panelling of the Censors' Room, which floats surreally over the garden suspended in a cantilevered white cube.
The building can be read as an inversion of John Nash's terraces. The huge planes of mosaic-clad concrete that hover over amoebic shapes in Staffordshire blue brick are like an upside-down version of Nash's black slate roofs and creamy stucco facades. The two skinny columns that hold up the library seem like an almost comic distortion of Nash's classical columns – more important rhetorically than structurally. And the building is an inverted ziggurat, a paradoxical inversion of the classical idea of heavy base and light superstructure.
Lasdun's work is often described as uncompromisingly modern, but it was also infused with his classical, Beaux Arts education. His idea of the building as a reflection of the institution it houses, its hierarchical organisation and complex three-dimensional composition, are classical as well as modernist. The RCP sits at a critical junction in the development of Lasdun's work. The challenge of squaring the college's elitist history with a desire to become a more public and democratic institution seems to have unlocked something profound in Lasdun's architecture.
Lasdun was able to fuse the spatial possibilities opened up by modernism with a sense of grandeur and occasion. Until this commission, he was still considered an unproven, somewhat risky talent. After it, he was elevated to a level where he worked on a series of highly prestigious projects, culminating in the National Theatre. In all these projects he was able to combine a commitment to formal radicalism while retaining an establishment rapport.
The exhibition curated by Sarah Backhouse runs throughout the public sections of the building and contains some fascinating fragments, not least Lasdun's copy of Walter Gropius's Scope of Total Architecture scrawled with Statler and Waldorf-ish heckles of "Rubbish!" in the margins. But the real exhibition is the building itself: generous, graceful, exquisitely balanced between respect and provocation, history and modernity.
The Anatomy of a Building: Denys Lasdun and the Royal College of Physicians
Images: Helene Binet; courtesy RIBA