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Denys Lasdun

Updated Monday, 26th November 2001

Denys Lasdun brought a harder, more heroic feel to Modernism.

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Denys Lasdun

(1914 - 2001)



Famous Buildings:
Keeling House
Royal National Theatre
University of East Anglia

Back to Basics

Denys Lasdun is part of the 'third generation' of Modernist architects. He was heavily influenced by the early masters like Le Corbusier, and worked with prominent second generation pioneers Wells Coates and Berthold Lubetkin.

After the war his distinctive style and the often large scale of his projects marked him as one of the most visible of Britain's Modernists, a position which made him a target of criticism. Prince Charles described Lasdun's masterpiece, the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank as "a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting".

It is on the South Bank that the distinctiveness of Lasdun's Modernism can best be seen. The National Theatre (the 'Royal' was added later) stands in sharp contrast to its neighbouring, older, monument to British Modernism, the Royal Festival Hall.

Lacking the gentle curves and seductive whiteness of the Festival Hall, the National - opened twenty-five years later - epitomises a harder, more heroic Modernism, perhaps accounting for the mixed reactions it continues to provoke.

In a 2001 opinion poll conducted by Radio Four's Today programme, the National featured in the top five of the most liked, and most disliked, British buildings.

Urban Landscaping

Many of Lasdun's generation of Modernists objected to the whimsical nature of the Festival of Britain architecture, and were keen instead to refocus the Movement on the work of the 'heroic' pioneers such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe.

The National Theatre's bush-hammered concrete exterior and thick slabs form an imposing exterior for three theatres and a complex variety of foyers.

But whilst the National appears to be an uncompromising Modernist monument, Lasdun was determined that it should be infused with the respect for environment and humanism which characterises much of his work. The horizontal slabs form concrete terraces which slope away from the Thames like a riverbank, and despite its imposing site at a wide bend in the river, Lasdun resists the temptation to build an overly dominant monument, in the vein of the great theatres of the past.

St Paul's to the east and the Houses of Parliament to the west are not upstaged.

Lasdun's commitment to the environment can also be seen in his student housing at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. Here, a group of ziggurat-shaped pyramids stand in landscaped parkland. The gentle slopes of the blocks, although a strict combination of the horizontal and the vertical like the National Theatre, blend well with the flat landscape of East Anglia.

High Society

Lasdun also had a commitment to humanism in his housing projects, and was deeply affected by the ambitious social goals of the Modern Movement. Like other far-sighted architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson, he was concerned that Modernist housing theory was guilty of ignoring the importance of 'belonging', and would destroy the strong sense of community fostered in narrow terraced streets.

His solution was the 'cluster block', perfected at Keeling House in Bethnal Green, in the heart of London's east end. Four towers surround a central service core, with two-storey maisonettes arranged with communal laundry galleries and public spaces in an attempt to replicate vibrant streets high in the air.

But Keeling House suffered many of the problems that afflicted all forms of inner-city social housing in the 1970s and 1980s. Although popular with its tenants, Lasdun did not succeed in maintaining the social cohesion he saw and admired in traditional housing.

Today, Keeling House has been renovated by a private developer and is home to some of London's better-heeled residents. Nonetheless, this building, as well as his more famous public landmarks, are testament to an architect with an abiding faith in the Modernists' ability, and duty, to improve the lives of people through the buildings they use, and who was not afraid to reinterpret, or adjust, Modernist thinking in order to achieve this.

The Modernist Architects


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