Charles Saumarez Smith, Royal Academy of Arts chief executive, suggests that Richard MacCormac’s newly-listed Shadwell Basin reveals him as ‘postmodern’
MJP Architects – the practice founded by Richard MacCormac (1938-2014) – hosted a conference on ‘The Architecture of Allusion’, bringing together disparate views on the role of history in architectural design, and adeptly chaired by critic and writer Jonathan Glancey. The speakers included architect and author Douglas Murphy (on Bill Forrest and Camden Council’s “transition to postmodernism”), curator and teacher Shumi Bose (“allusion must have a cultural and political agenda”), SAVE director Henrietta Billings (on protecting Southwark Jubilee Line station), MJP’s Reza Schuster (continuity in three office projects in Jersey), and the RA’s Charles Saumarez Smith, whose paper on MJP’s Shadwell Basin follows below:
Besides Saumarez Smith, the conference speakers were Reza Schuster, Henrietta Billings, Shumi Bose, Jonathan Glancey (chair) and Douglas Murphy.
When Owen Hopkins was organising the recent exhibition at the Soane Museum on the subject of postmodernism in British architecture (‘The Return of the Past’, May-August 2018), one of the practices he asked to participate was MJP, the current formulation of MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, a practice which was very active during the 1980s during the high noon of postmodernism. The request caused a great deal of soul searching in the practice. Did they want to be associated with the style? In general, the older members of the practice didn’t and the younger members did, reflecting a generational difference in attitudes to the style. They decided to hold a workshop in which the issue was considered by a number of architectural historians.
Postmodernism is a term and, indeed, a concept which Richard MacCormac (1938-2014) would almost certainly have resisted during his lifetime, as it is still resisted by the older members of his practice. He was a student of Leslie Martin at Cambridge in the late 1950s. He worked at Powell & Moya during the early 1960s and he completed his architectural training at the Bartlett School when Richard Llewellyn was its technocratic head. He was of a generation and character which would have been suspicious of the modishness and fashionability of the more ostentatious characteristics of postmodernism in the early 1980s – the writings of Charles Jencks, the egg cups on the top of the TV-am building in Camden Town, the sense of a trahison des clercs within the profession, regretting and lamenting the traditions of thoughtfulness and integrity which were a characteristic of modernism in exchange for irony, jokiness and facadism. He enjoyed being a member of the Royal Academy where any form of identification or association with postmodernism was, and is, anathema.
And yet, just as MacCormac was a representative of a generation who had been brought up as an orthodox modernist, so it was almost certainly impossible for him wholly to escape some of the ambiguities and uncertainties about modernism, which so many of his generation experienced during the 1970s, particularly for someone who was so independent minded, so reflective about the nature of architecture, and so interested in its history.
Although MacCormac did his postgraduate studies at the Bartlett under Richard Llewellyn-Davies, one of the ultimate technocrats, he rejected his approach, advocating the use of aesthetics in preference to what he regarded as the ‘cold-blooded’, mechanistic approach advocated by the Bartlett. Like many other architects of his generation, he was employed to work on housing projects in Milton Keynes, but, unlike his contemporaries, he and his partner, David Prichard, produced a succession of neo-vernacular projects with pitched roofs, timber and brick, based round a belief in making the designs answer the clients’ needs. First, they designed a set of houses for rent in the village of Great Linford, which experimented with the separation of terrace cottages which opened out directly onto the street from the space which was made available for car parking, which was concealed by pergolas. They were built between 1975 and 1978. Next, they designed the so-called Chapter House flats at Coffee Hall for a housing association, which were arranged round courtyards. Then, terraced houses in Heelands. And, finally, thirteen pyramidal houses in Cottesford Crescent for a private developer from the early 1980s.
This was the period of widespread disillusionment with social housing and MacCormac quietly and unostentatiously, almost unnoticed, pursued a different route, influenced by his experience of working for Peter Willmott at the Institute of Community Studies while still an undergraduate in 1957 and the writings of Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander in ‘Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism’, published in 1963.
My case study of MacCormac’s attitude and approach to postmodernism and the way in which he could scarcely fail to be infected — or inflected — with the mood and attitudes of the time is the housing scheme he designed for the London Docklands Commission on Shadwell Basin, which has just been listed as an example of postmodernism – if one is prepared to use the term fairly loosely to describe architecture of the 1980s which broke with the tenets of modernism, was informed by history, and contained identifiable historical references. It is hard to remember now how programmatic these houses were.
Shadwell Basin, London (MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, 1982-87, ph: Martin Charles)
The London Docklands Development Corporation had been established in July 1981 and, at the time, was an extremely unpopular agency of government policy, set up by Michael Heseltine, as it was thought, to privatise the docklands, independent of planning controls or any involvement of the local boroughs, in this case Tower Hamlets. In 1983, MacCormac Jamieson Prichard was commissioned by Ted Hollamby, the former director of housing for Lambeth who had worked with Leslie Martin in the architects’ department of the London County Council, and who had been very recently appointed chief architect and planner to the LDDC, to produce what was described as a ‘guideline study’ to Stage C for the development of Shadwell Basin, part of the old London docks complex, which was being retained as a partial dock, rather than, as with other parts of the docks, infilled. Hollamby had been impressed by a proposal for docklands’ housing which MacCormac had published in the Architectural Review in January 1982 which was based on a conflation of his interest on nineteenth-century dock design with an interest in vernacular canalside housing in Venice. Hollamby wanted to establish an effective vocabulary for docklands’ housing developments which was not purely pastiche nor routinely suburban and MacCormac’s proposals, which provided for deep interiors and a view out onto water, provided a possible answer. MacCormac proposed, on the west side, three-storey apartment buildings, which were given architectural character by round-headed arches resting on straight concrete columns and, on the north side, four storeys, as on the east, with a playfully split pediment.
Shadwell Basin, London (MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, 1982-87, ph: Martin Charles)
Shadwell Basin was not constructed exactly as MacCormac had planned it. Although MJP was retained as architect once the site was acquired by Sanctuary Land in 1984, the detailed drawings were done by another practice, which changed some of the detailing, including introducing a brighter, more primary red to the paintwork instead of the original Venetian red oxide which Richard had wanted, and reducing the height of the buildings in the north-east corner near the church so as not to interfere with the wind for the sailing school. However, the overall vocabulary that was used, the massing and the classical vocabulary of round arches and columns, was MacCormac’s, based, most obviously, on the design of Jesse Hartley’s Albert Dock in Liverpool.
MacCormac doesn’t give Shadwell Basin much space in the monograph produced on his work (Building Ideas, 2010). He probably didn’t regard it as his proudest achievement, when compared to the extraordinarily high quality of his work for Oxford and Cambridge colleges, including Worcester and St John’s College, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge. But the scheme has worn well as an example of early docklands housing. It was included in a book on Postmodern Triumphs in London, published in 1991, which published Shadwell Basin on its front cover and described it as “Wharfism incarnate, the recollection of the grand nineteenth-century tradition of industrial buildings in the docks… arches, porthole windows, pyramidal forms, colonnades and red and blue steel syncopate their way around a huge public realm made of water, a maritime square, a blue piazza”.
It is surely and unequivocally postmodern in its light reference to historic architecture and its use of classicism as a language to unite the separate elements of the scheme into an effective overall scheme. The language of classicism is not used jokily or ironically or particularly showily, but it is an obvious component of the way the architecture is articulated and conceived.