WAF Newsletter - Dreaming on - May 2021

Dreaming on

Paul Hyett, 21 May 2021

You know that occasional ‘morning feeling’ where you linger half in and out of sleep, writes Paul Hyett, slowly awakening to the welcome realisation that the awful, stressful dream you were having was indeed just a dream. Or it is an incredible dream but as you wake, your hold on it begins to slip until it’s completely lost. Gone. You cannot remember anything at all!

Understanding dreams has been a preoccupation through the ages, the science of how we dream being oneirology, whilst dream interpretation is the attempt to draw meaning from dreams and search for an underlying message.

This morning (as I write), I drifted out of slumber and left a Mad Hatter’s world behind, but I managed to grab a pen and commit the essence of my dream to paper. I had been in the most bizarre setting – a large Hampstead apartment where my son Ben and I were luncheon guests of James Stirling and his wife, Mary Shand. The place was impossibly cluttered. Weird beyond weird, as is the way with dreams, Stirling kept darting across the room on a little push-scooter, whizzing around oversized items of furniture and huge plants, all at great speed.

Amidst this scene, a most serious conversation played out about colour and its use in architecture. Cedric Price sat in a corner, and John Lyall and Piers Gough appeared and joined in. I was arguing that Stirling’s work had been pivotal in bringing a new emphasis on colour back into the heart of architecture.

I noted the brutalist work of Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron residential towers in London, and the Park Hill estate in Sheffield by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, as well as the now part-demolished Robin Hood Gardens by the Smithsons. All were examples of a colourless post-World War 2 architecture that Stirling had, first with James Gowan, and then more so with Michael Wilford, bravely challenged -- an unscholarly theory that I relay only to illustrate the strange, and seemingly uncontrollable, passage of our dreams.

And then, awake, I remembered how refreshing it was that colour – real bold colour – had found its way back into architecture. I thought of all that pale cream rendering to 1950s social housing, the grey and silver work of the hi-tech teams, and how pleasing it was when colour started to creep into some of those compositions.

All of which takes me to a trip I made back in the mid-1980s. I took a day off and went to Stuttgart. Reason: I had been completely bowled over by the Architectural Review’s brilliant critique of the Staatsgalerie, written by Alan Colquhoun (December 1984). I had to see it for myself.

The last time I had been in that part of Gemany was to visit the Weissenhof Seidlung, the incredible housing estate built for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927 during the ill-fated Weimer Republic. There, the work of 17 architects (which included Le Corbusier, Behrens, Scharoun, Taut and Gropius) had been co-ordinated by Mies van der Rohe. Of some sixty dwellings, mostly in terraces, and all with flat roofs, all but two of the schemes were white. Taut was the rather jolly colourful exception.

In Stuttgart I remember being mesmerised by the power of Stirling and Wilford’s Staatsgalerie, with its extraordinary section and that brilliant public walkway which traversed the site from the street behind, down and around the rotunda, to the plaza below. And the colours . . . The layered stone cladding with its subtle banding and a thousand Turneresque hues of brown and cream; the rich streaks of pink and blue to the sloping handrails; the apple-green curtain-wall mullions and the bright red entrance porticos and doorways – altogether sublime. It was an incredible day.

I visited again five years ago, following a project meeting at the engineer Schlaich Bergermann’s office. The Staatsgalerie, like its sister project at No.1 Poultry in the City of London, was just as fresh, just as radiant, and just as effective in lifting the spirit of those who were simply passing by.

So why this sudden nocturnal preoccupation of mine with colour? Perhaps it was the experience of the previous. It had been a beautiful sunny morning as I had turned off a flyover to head into London, taking my Ducati (red of course) for its check-over at the Rosso Corse workshop in Bethnal Green.

And then, sheer joy as I tracked along the Mile End Road: that splash of yellow that carries the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park across the A11 as a garden bridge. Only Piers Gough could or would have done this. His love of Gaudi, Parc Guell and all that is self-evident, but the clean lines and contemporary language of the project shine through. This is a thoroughly modern piece responding to a wonderfully inventive programme. But above all, it is the use of colour and curves in both section and plan, simultaneously restrained, yet stunningly bold, that make it so unforgettable. And those richly green glazed bricks at the base . . . it is majestic.

Others would have produced a noisy silhouette from which they hung an over engineered solution, but Gough has given us a beautiful gateway to the city which at once sets off the red of the Guardian Angels Church tower beyond, while announcing a glorious park that invites escape from the urban setting.

I get the ‘white’ of the Weissenhof Project, which of course was the essential hallmark of early modernism, but thank goodness for Stirling and Wilford, for Gough, John Lyall, Will Alsop, Ian Ritchie, Ted Cullinan and Terry Farrell, John Outram and just a few other architects who, during the 1970s and 80s began to bravely explore colour once more, and through so doing, enriched our architecture so generously.

All of which brings me back to dreaming and an incredible talk I attended in the early70s hosted by the architect and teacher Paul Shepheard. The setting was an disused shop in Tufnell Park from where Paul co-hosted ‘The Architecture Club’ which staged a series of evening talks. James Gowan, who had not so long before split with Stirling, ending their fractious seven-year partnership, was giving a talk entitled, if my memory serves me correctly, ‘A Palladian Coincidence’.

He showed an array of sketches for his East Hanningfield Housing Project which was in design stage. Some 98 dwellings spread across a six-acre site; the scheme was dominated by mono-pitch roofs which he had assembled as a series of split gable-pediments. The talk focused on his preoccupation with just how and why he had settled on a particular angle for the roof pitch, and the relationship between circular and rectangular windows, and here he referred to a tour he had taken some years before to study the work of Andrea Palladio.

And then, low and behold, he revealed through a series of overlay sketches, captured on transparencies for his slide-show that, seemingly unwittingly, the essential proportions of his East Ham work had been derived from those Palladian facades which had lingered in his deep sub-conscience ever since that formative trip.

Years later, after showing me around his Lowry Theatre, I remember Michael Wilford telling of his early ‘apprenticeship’ in that very apartment of which I had dreamed, from where Stirling and Gowan had run their early practice. He described a scene where he sat at a trestle table flanked either side by the partners (the ‘office’ was then just three strong), head down and drawing as heated debate raged between these two titans. Michael referred to architectural ‘Exocets’ being fired at close range over his head!

What a training! Or was I dreaming?

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