Articles & Reviews
From C20 – The 20th Century Society Journal (Autumn 2008, Number 9)
Elain Harwood is an officer of English Heritage and an authority on 20th Century urban architecture in Britain.
Trevor Dannatt: Works and Words, Roger Stonehouse, Black Dog Publishing
ISBN 9781906155216 £29.95
Reviewed by Elain Harwood
Back in 1997, as the C20 Society staggered round Berlin's Hansaviertel Estate in a downpour, Bridget and John Cherry and I took shelter in its arts centre, by Werner Düttman. We felt calm, yet re-energised. 'Why, it could be by Trevor Dannatt', exclaimed Bridget of the simple yet carefully finished spaces. It was only by seeing that rare quality of calm in another architect's work that I came to appreciate Dannatt's gift for an all-encompassing and luminescent architecture, Scandinavian in inspiration but with an inner strength. Dannatt once described himself to the Society as a herbivore (as denoted by his very woolly ties), but his buildings have a truth to materials and as strong an organising 'route' through them as anything by the Smithsons, often imposing interesting diagonals and giving oblique views.
Trevor Dannatt entered the Regent Street Polytechnic seventy years ago this year, inspired less by his architect uncle P B Dannatt than by the artist Alfred Hallet, a teacher at his school. The book ranges from student projects to his most recent work – can any architect claim a longer career? Influences included his teacher Peter Moro, for whom he worked in 1948-51 on the Royal Festival Hall, detailing the staircases; the Danish architect and designer Finn Juhl, and Alvar Aalto. A more shadowy figure is that of Leslie Martin, whose buildings he admired as a student and with whom he collaborated, at the RFH and later at College Hall, Leicester, an unemotional brick building with surprisingly rich dining and common room facilities for low-budget university accommodation.
The warmth in their detailing I take to be Dannatt's. What he could achieve with a decent budget is exemplified by the Fellows' Social Building, a small addition to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, stairs, dining table and window set in parallel planes. This commission followed Dannatt's best-known private house, built in 1958 for the Cambridge don Peter Laslett, where half levels (concealed on the exterior) make for a higher first-floor living room and allow oblique views through the house from the central stair.
Dannatt's career can be divided into three, punctuated in the 1970s by a conference centre, hotel, mosque and housing in Riyadh, his largest commissions and realised with his partner Colin Dollimore, a talented designer and teacher who died relatively young. While other architects fell into the trap of classicism working in the Middle East – just when modernism collapsed in the West – they managed to hold fast to a styleless formalism. These buildings exemplify Roger Stonehouse's theory that the practice's work is primarily about form, as learned from Moro and thence from Berthold Lubetkin. More recently Dannatt has worked with David Johnson as Dannatt, Johnson Architects, combining new buildings with restoration work and interventions in historic settings. They have adapted Greenwich Hospital for the University of Greenwich and built a new pavilion in Kew Gardens, their work's spare lines appearing as a sorbet in such rich settings.
The title of the book is a reminder that Dannatt has a second career as a writer and editor. He is the author of Modern Architecture in Britain, still the best book on the 1950s, and more importantly the series of Architects' Year Books published by Paul Elek from 1945 – Dannatt assisted Jane Drew before taking over as editor between 1949 and 1962. Highly influential because they were read by his fellow architects, they mixed architecture, theory and art in the manner of Circle of 1937, another example of Martin's influence on Dannatt from student days. Dannatt has been an avid collector of art, which has informed the intensity of his architecture. Stonehouse compares Dannatt with another art collector and Martin collaborator, Colin St John Wilson, and on the strength of this book I am persuaded that Dannatt is the more inventive designer.
This is an admirable architect's oeuvre complete, logically laid out and beautifully illustrated, that brings to life those buildings impossible to see in the flesh, such as the Riyadh group, as well as those more easily visited. The one criticism is that there is some duplication between the text by Stonehouse, who contributes a general critique and an introduction to each section, and Dannatt's more vivid writing on individual projects and an illuminating account of his early life.