Obit> Alan Colquhoun, 1921-2012
Anthony Vidler remembers the venerated architect and educator.
Alan Colquhoun
Courtesy Architectural Associaton Photo Library

In an incisive essay from 1951 on Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, Giulio Carlo Argan identified what he called the two distinct rationalisms that differentiated Gropius from Le Corbusier.

The two leaders of the renewal of European architecture are Le Corbusier and Gropius. They both struggled for a reform which was rationalist in intention, and their propositions have many theses in common. But they are concerned with two “rationalisms” with opposite meanings, which lead to opposed solutions for the same problem. Le Corbusier considers rationality to be a system and draws vast plans which should eliminate every problem. For Groupius, rationality is a method which allows him to localize and resolve problems which are continuously posed by existence.”

If this distinction seems in retrospect too blunt, then the example of the architect and critic Alan Colquhoun serves to mitigate the apparent opposition between “vast plans” and the experience of “existence.” For, ever a constant rationalist, Colquhoun exemplified that distinct brand of projective vision and empirical adjustment that characterized the Scottish Enlightenment, of which he was the architectural heir.

Educated at the Edinburgh College of Art and the Architectural Association in London, he quickly became known as the elegant, incisive, and sometimes ruthless critic of his own and his circle’s architecture. This circle, comprised, among others, Thomas Stevens, Reyner Banham, Colin Rowe, Colin St. John Wilson, Robert Maxwell, and his partner John Miller. All were subjected to his unrelenting scrutiny for their failure to follow through on the rationalist propositions of the modern movement.

His own architecture, exemplified in the “unite” housing block at Bentham Road, designed for the London County Council with Peter Carter, was Corbusian through and through, and if he was to take his distance from the later “vernacular” style it was not without a deep appreciation of the continuities he could find in parti and typological development.

Early on he refused to be coopted by the ever-present picturesque tradition in England. In one of his first published statements, a letter to the Review, July 1954, refuting Pevsner’s claim that Le Corbusier’s compositional practice owed much to the Picturesque tradition, he clearly distinguished between the Corbusian “free plan” and picturesque composition, attacking the “historicism” and anti-didactic position of Pevsner.

Modern architecture’s value for Colquhoun was in this sense embodied in its didactic logic, expressing a “functional hierarchy” and eschewing purely visual concerns, as against what he called the “effete and superficial” modernism of Postwar British architecture.

His own work with John Miller was anything but: rigorously geometrical, formal without being formalist, functional without being functionalist, technologically adequate without being hi-tech (he was later to castigate the technological expressionism of Piano and Rogers’ Centre Pompidou), and rhetorically calm without being mute.

As a cricic, Colqhoun gradually gained his voice in the early 1960s, writing two seminal essays, the one a review of Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1961), the other a meditation on the then emerging current of typological debate. Taking issue with Banham’s view that the first generation of modernists, led by Le Corbusier, had failed to attain their stated goal of a “machine-age” architecture, Colquhoun defended them as culturally embedded and fundamentally non-systematic. To accuse them of neglecting to follow the technological movement of history was for Banham, Pevsner’s PhD student, equally historicist. Worse, Banham had ended the book with a plea for the recognition of Buckminster Fuller as the true techno-modernist, as opposed to Corbusier the symbolic modernist. For Colquhoun this was the last straw. Fuller, he opined, was just as symbolically aware in the Dymaxion House as Corbusier in the Villa Savoye à Poissy; nor was Fuller any more the rationalist—rather he was more mystical than any. What counted for Colquhoun was, rather, “the meaning attributed to the role of the machine in architecture,” and not in any technological determinism.

Having dealt with Pevsner, Banham, and by implication the emerging hi-tech movement, he then turned to another of his London circle, Colin Rowe, and his special kind of “historicism” that assumed the continuity of concepts like mannerism, and the internal classicisms of Palladio and Le Corbusier. For Colquhoun, this ignored once more the effort of modernism to escape from the Hegelian trap and to refer to rather than belong to history; modernism was not “history as usual,” but a “displacement” of historical concepts.

Colquhoun’s withdrawal from active practice and his turn towards a professional career as critic and teacher began in 1966 with his first visit to Princeton, and several visits later to his appointment as full professor in 1981 serving until his final retirement twenty years later. There, with the companionship of his oldest friend, Bob Maxwell, and together with a group of younger faculty including Michael Hays, Mark Wigley, Beatriz Colomina, Georges Teyssot, and Alessandra Ponte, he forged a critical practice in seminars and PhD advising that led to three books in succession: Essays in Architectural Criticism (1981), Modernity and the Classical Tradition (1989), and Modern Architecture (2002). In these, he explored the difficult territory of modernism and history, always conscious of the different senses of each at different periods, always careful to distinguish between Kantian rationalism and Hegelian historicism, and to trace their often-contradictory effects in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But in this deep and painstaking investigation that involved the analysis of 19th century compositional techniques and their survival into the 20th, the complex play of symbols and signs in abstract modernism and non-abstract postmodernism, he was gradually led to retreat from his earlier defense of modernism pur et dur. Modern Architecture, his magisterial attempt to summarize the ideals and realized projects of the first three-quarters of the 20th century, emerged less as a triumphal affirmation of these ideals than as a symphonie pathétique along the lines of T.J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea (1999). “Many aspects of Modernist theory still seem valid today,” he wrote in conclusion. “But much in it belongs to the realm of myth, and is impossible to accept at face value. The myth itself has now become history, and demands critical interpretation.”

Anthony Vidler

Anthony Vidler is the dean of architecture at the Cooper Union.