Brutal & Beautiful: The Royal College of Physicians

There are just ten post-war buildings in
England listed at Grade I. This is the Royal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun and Partners from 1960-64 In it, his first major work, Lasdun infuses
Brutalism with a new form of beauty The Royal College of Physicians was founded in 1518 and evolved as a regulatory and educational organisation until its
premises off Trafalgar Square became too small. A site was found adjoining
Regents Park with John Nash’s Regency terraces, but the historian Sir John
Summerson recommended a modern building Boldly the college took his advice, held a competition and in 1958 gave Denys Lasdun his first major work. Only the building’s entrance faces
Regents Park in fact Lasdun shunned the park: setting his building south, towards
the city and creating a courtyard with the character of an Oxbridge quadrangle. The white mosaic harks back to 1930s modernism and to Nash’s stucco terraces
but it’s a real material and a luxuriant one. The blue Staffordshire brickwork
denotes the working parts of the building. I think people are often quite
surprised that such a modern building is listed once they know more about it and
they know more about how generous it is and how it’s made out of such amazing
materials as well: the contrast between the marble in the blue engineering brick
for example. The words architectural masterpiece are used too often but I think they really apply in this case. This is the fences room, the very heart
of the college and Lasdun put it at the centre of his plan: it’s where
candidates used to be interviewed for admittance. The Spanish oak paneling has traveled with the college through each of its home since the 1670s but it is
clearly separate to Lasdun’s building As you can see with the window openings, and at the corners old objects also work beautifully in the clean modern spaces It’s a reflection of Lasdun’s thoroughness and farsightedness, The observation he made of how the college functioned and took into account in his
design, a certain list of the test of time. He observed the college in its
ceremonial as well as its practical functions. I think that people are very surprised
they first come into the entrance hall and you don’t get much of a clue that
when you walk up the stairs you’re going to walk into this huge atrium with the
floating staircase which is hugely impressive. Lasdun closely observed the ceremonial procession held at Trafalgar Square. in which the fellows led by its
president and four Censors progressed from the Censors Room up a grand staircase,
to the general meetings in the first floor library. This pattern was repeated
in the new building. The first plans show a long room for hanging pictures and having drinks but into it Lasdun then pushed the staircase and the library and
dining room come off it. Thus the building is all about movement and this
became an important feature of all Lasdun’s major buildings. It’s appropriate
here however as amongst the college’s treasures are studies of circulation of
the blood. These bodies were dissected their nerves, arteries and veins coloured
and preserved. The Royal College of Physicians as a whole has had to make some changes:there have been some challenges, particularly when
you’re looking at replacing things like worn-out fixtures and fittings. So we
have to look for the nearest replacement and make sure that that’s acceptable to
English Heritage, but we’ve done our utmost to try to preserve the building
both in the spirit of Sir Denys Lasdun and in its in its practical state. The building was listed Grade I in 1998 but English Heritage had already
approved an addition: it was to be one of Lasdun’s last buildings much lighter
in style. I think the fact that it is Grade I listed now gives it more importance both in the architectural community, and generally also it gives a
greater focus to the building itself to its contents. I think people might be
more interested to come and see what makes an architectural masterpiece,
what makes a great one listed building why is that different to any other
building? Modernism was so associated with schools
and public housing, that architects questioned whether it could be used for
grander buildings. Lasdun showed it could be done: the Royal College of Physicians is his masterpiece and it’s fantastic that it’s in such good hands

1 comment

  1. I generally like brutalist architecture but I feel that by embracing functionality many brutalist architects neglected the aesthetics of their building, and I think that is wrong. Aesthetics have a function; they make people feel better by making it so that the place they live and work looks as well designed on the surface as it is behind the scenes. Lasdun got it right with the Royal College of Physicians.

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