The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Alan Colquhoun

by Geraint Franklin

Few writers could be said to have changed the way we think about modern architecture, but the critic, teacher and architect Alan Colquhoun, who died in December 2012 aged 91, is arguably among their number. Described by his contemporary Reyner Banham as ‘one of the guardians of the intellectual conscience of his generation of London architects’, Colquhoun brought an intellectual rigour to the revaluation of the modern movement. Gentle and sober in character, he belonged to a serious generation whose architectural training was interrupted by the 1939-45 war but whose social engagement was tempered by it. Colquhoun’s introduction to modern architecture came at the age of 17 through a school friend, Thomas (‘Sam’) Stevens: he later recalled that ‘my first love was for Mies’.

On graduating from the Architectural Association in 1949, work within (or at least for) the public sector was a natural choice. At the Housing Division of the LCC Architects Department (1950-55), Candilis Woods (1955-56) and Lyons Israel Ellis (1956- 1961), Colquhoun proved a skilled practitioner, designing a series of robust yet refined Corbusian buildings in board-marked concrete. Particularly notable was a heroic block of apartments at Bentham Road, Hackney, designed by a group that included Colquhoun, Sandy Wilson and Peter Carter, which adapted Corbu’s Unité d’Habitation to LCC space standards and construction techniques. Colquhoun meanwhile became a pivotal member of the architectural avant-garde in 1950s London. Around the French House Pub in Soho and Sam Stevens’ flat in Marylebone High Street coalesced a group that included Colquhoun, Stevens, Bob Maxwell and John Miller (from 1961 to 1988 his partner in practice). They formed a humanist/Corbusian axis that can be distinguished from the brutalist/Fullerite faction that centred on Reyner Banham, the Smithsons and the Independent Group.

Instrumental to Colquhoun’s development as a critic and theorist was his friend Colin Rowe; the two were introduced by Maxwell in 1947. Rowe’s 1949 essay ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ heralded the regeneration of British architectural history, hinting at a new and redemptive relation between modernism and memory. Its possibilities were taken up in Colquhoun’s writing which suggested that the history and criticism of architecture offered a way out of the impasse of functionalism. His interest in the classical tradition prefigures the presence of neo-classical typologies in the work of James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, Georgio Grassi, Carlo Aymonino, Oswald Matthias Ungers and others. Colquhoun also wrote eloquently about the ability (or failure) of modern architecture to generate urban fabric, and displayed an affinity with French intellectual culture such as structural linguistics and semiology. His prose is rigorous, occasionally rarified, but above all characterised by a love of ideas, of words and (borrowing from Wittgenstein) ‘language games’.

Rowe’s removal to Texas University in 1951 provided a template for a type of academic career chosen by a generation of British intellectuals, including Colquhoun, Maxwell, Tony Vidler and Ken Frampton. It involved shuttling back and fore between London and the USA and oscillating (a favourite word) between theory and practice. Colquhoun taught at the AA (1957-64), Cornell University (1968, 1971), University College, Dublin (1972-73), The Polytechnic of Central London (1974-78) and Princeton University (1968-70 and 1981 onwards). Respected as an educator, he praised the American campus as ‘incredibly active and intellectually marvellous’. His publications include Modern Architecture (2002) and Collected Essays in Architectural Criticism (2009). Comparing structuralism to Schoenberg’s serialist technique in music, Claude Lévi-Strauss remarked that the two shared ‘a resolutely intellectual approach, a bias in favour of systematic arrangements and a mistrust of mechanistic and empirical solutions’. The same could be claimed of Colquhoun’s approach to architecture.

Alan Colquhoun, born 27 June 1921, died 13 December 2012.

Published May 2013