Polite Modernism: Eric Parry & the Other Tradition

What Colin St John Wilson called “The Architecture of Invitation” or “The Other Tradition”, I call “Polite Modernism”. Its finest living exponent is Eric Parry, who is firmly in the CSJW tradition, both academic and creative. And now he has delivered what looks like an excellent successor to CSJW’s British Library, and Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians. Actually, his headquarters for the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers has a decent claim to be the ultimate in the genre so far.

After the fold, there’s an account of what Polite Modernism is, and how it fits into Brutalism and Modernism, and even post-modernism.

Modernism is functional, brutalism is bleakly functional. That’s about it, really, so far as those two go. Oh, and both are minimalist. And there’s usually a lot of concrete and a fair amount of white. And no smiles. Indeed, modernism and brutalism often came with large dollops of Futurism: this is, to be blunt, the Italian (and partly Russian) proto-Fascist creed which was remorselessly bossy, sort-of-socialist and ruthlessly theoretical. Actually, Fascism’s architectural and town planning legacy seems rather fine, though I wouldn’t like you take my unread word for it. Who is to say, for instance, whether Parry’s Aldermanbury Square, 2007 (or his 30 Finsbury Square) better expresses civilised Modernism than Minnucci’s Palazzo degli Uffici dell’ Ente Autonomo EUR (or Fendi’s restoration of  the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana by Guerrini, La Padula and Romano)?

Colin St John Wilson was, so far as I know, the first to anatomise some of these complexities: jiving the assertive with the doctrinaire; the humane with the ill-considered. He tried to see what Modernism might be like if it took a more nuanced view, both as to the enduring in people’s tastes and their desire for comfort. He had a ready tool to hand: he identified in Le Corbusier both the prescriptive commissar-theoretician and – contrariwise – the epitome of the humane in social housing.

CSJW wanted to articulate a resolution of these contradictions (as he thought Le Corbusier had not). His “Architecture of Invitation” – his own theory in books and his own practice in bricks and concrete – did exactly that. His book  The Other Tradition was his successful attempt to note how suppressed or under-represented the “architecture of invitation” had been, but also how it had, once one knew what one was looking for, quite a few exponents. The Other Tradition was in large part Scandinavian, its star,  Alvar Aalto, and its work is as important in the intimacies of furniture as in awe-inspiring buildings. 

I am rather proud of my coining of “Polite Modernism” because it precisely catches what modernism has to concede or collaborate with, if it is to be capable of richness. Roughly speaking, it has to accept that its users have archaic as well as forward-looking modes. The traditional needs a home in their buildings. A curve here, a staircase’s sweep there; the right paneling, the well-placed niche; fossils left in stone or faux-implanted in concrete; furniture which could yield to a backside: these might dog-whistle a note of the pre-existing amongst all the clarity of line and boldness of engineering the modern demanded.

Naturally enough, these concessions can flop over into the Post Modern, in a good or a bad way, according to one’s taste and the taste of the architect. It’s as well to acknowledge the “problem”: Modernism delights in purity and has its Puritanism, and Post Modernism can be a giggling trollop.

  • RCP: Modernism and stained glass
  • RCP: multi-purpose room
  • RCP: multi-purpose room, detail
  • RCP: hints of glitter and portraiture
  • RCP: glimpse of modern window in the library
  • RCP: First floor gallery space
  • SAM_250243

    RCP: hints of glitter and portraiture #2

  • RCP: Modernist cantilevers in full swing
  • RCP: Modernism as good neighbour
  • RCP: Modernism as good neighbour #2

Lasdun’s lovely RCP building: a gallery of pix

It is important here to stress how beautifully Denys Lasdun, a complex figure, embodied these understandings in the Royal College of Physicians building in Regent’s Park. His National Theatre on the Southbank is a bunker, for sure, but its nooks and crannies are painly for conversation not gun emplacement. Oddly, I am less sure of the British Library by CSJW, but anyone can make their own mind up about that. Its interiors are demonstrably decorative as much as pure. For other examples of Polite Modernism, I’d recommend Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; Britten’s Red House, Aldeburgh; and Karen Blixen’s manor house in Rungstedlund.

Parry’s Leathersellers building is an advance on all these because it uses the decorative – much leather, but also tapestry and glass, all both old and new – and the artisinal not as add-ons, or display items, but in the very fabric of the build.

St John Wilson would be proud of the youngster’s work. CSJW will always be held in affection for his connection with the Pallant Gallery in Chichester, where his wife’s practice, with input from him, built an extension – comely in its neighbourliness – to house his gifts and loans of some world class British art from the 20th Century. He seems an almost poetic figure, whose ambiguities (Cambridge University, Wittgenstein, all those paintings, retirement to Bosham) are nicely topped, posthumously, by the way his erstwhile classical Georgian practice building in Islington – where he designed the British Library – is now  the Estorick, a white-walled gallery devoted to Italian Futurism.

Parry is some sort of heir to St John Wilson, but his output is far larger than CSJW’s. Large but coherent: all Parry’s work carries his own signature: it all pursues his argument with the past and the future. Anyway, its point is distinctiveness which doesn’t do mere bravura. None of his work is a display of what can be achieved when an architect’s pencil doodles sci-fi visions and the engineer works out how to make swank stand up. Indeed, his Leathersellers work is from top to bottom and in every way and anywhere you look an homage to the vitality of tradition, and to the wants and needs of people who come to the place to work, show off, learn and entertain one another.

Parry has operated on a large scale, delivering 10 Paternoster Square (and the smaller 8 St James’s Square and much else) for commerce, and on a much more intimate scale delivering a hall for Brighton College of Music (and plenty of other similar efforts). His Leathersellers work is just one of several interiors by which he will be remembered.

And he follows CSJW in being interested in the neighbourliness  of buildings: it’s an especially poignant issue for the Modernism which must, if it is anything, proclaim itself as fresh. The new kid on the block can’t be overly modest – but nothing is ever new, and brashness can’t be all. Parry’s own, sole book is: Context: Architecture and the Genius of Place (Wiley, £30 and a bit less from Amazon as an eBook). All academic architectural writing is a last hold-out of the structuralism with which the Architectural Association and others infected a couple of generations of bright young artists. Parry’s writing reins in almost all the worst of that tendency: he is readable, though not an easy read. He seems serious rather than portentous. And you get that enjoyable tease: with luck you could enjoy or even love Parry’s buildings without reading his rather fine account of how his thinking affected his sketching; but this is an intellectual architect, no question, so the rationale is an enrichment.

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Publication date

28 June 2017


Mind & body; On art; On books