Anatomy of a Building – Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians

Monday, December 15, 2014

Post War Buildings.
The Royal College of Physicians, St Andrews Place, Regents Park, Greater London.
Exterior of college.

To commemorate 50 years since the opening of their building, the Royal College of Physicians recently held a memorial lecture and dinner in honour of its architect, the often misunderstood genius Sir Denys Lasdun.

The event was part of the “Anatomy of a Building” exhibition and it was an inspiring night of good food and even better architecture. Being inside one of their buildings is the best way to explore the mind of a great architect.

It felt like I displaced time by “looking back” on a man so forward thinking. His methods and his ideas seemed to stretch ahead of us while we celebrated them 50 years later. That may be his defining achievement: creating buildings that feel like they sit outside of time and tradition.

Despite that, his work was very much of its era. He was part of the Brutalist movement; mid-century architects who created form from function, prioritising the use of the building above all else. Notable examples in London are the Barbican Estate and Lasdun’s own National Theatre on the South Bank.

The language of the style was exposed concrete and pipework, instead of masking the purpose of a building with a decorative façade, they brought its interior workings to the forefront.

However, the repeating patterns and uniform structures found in many Brutalist buildings still displays a predisposition with aesthetic, no matter how stripped down it may be.

It was Lasdun’s work that pushed Brutalism to its ultimate conclusion. His uncompromising belief in design dedicated to use produced unusual architecture that favoured dynamism over consistency. The entire structure serves the interior, allowing the spread of light and movement between spaces that stimulate and surprise.

He would watch how people worked and formed his designs naturally around them, preferring the use of models over 2D drawings. Every room was built entirely to facilitate its purpose, all connected by intuitive, efficient paths that flow like streams into rivers. From this process, a striking and almost organic structure would emerge.

“The architect’s job is not to give clients what they thought they wanted, but what they never dreamed they could have.” – Sir Denys Lasdun

The Royal College of Physicians was especially challenging for Lasdun. He had to concern himself with more than the here and now, he had to interpret hundreds of years of rituals, traditions and heritage, accommodating an institution as well as the people who work within it.

The building grows with each floor, forming dramatic, cliff-like overhangs that create a pleasant transition into shade as you enter. Inside, a rectangular spiral staircase guides you from a bright airy, open hall to offices that float above the city streets.

Contrasting with the modern structure is the restored wood panelling in the Censor’s Room, official portraits throughout and the occasional flourish of stained glass.

It’s a building that’s divisive to this day. Whether you love or loathe it, what is undeniable is that Lasdun was true to his vision with a certainty of purpose that has left a lasting impact on the world of architecture. With many retreating to the relative safety of aestheticism, he still seems bold.

I certainly aspire to his work ethic. Regardless of what you think of the result, Lasdun’s process put his client before all else. How they lived, worked and used their environment guided a process of gradual iteration towards a unique space – much like our approach of building from the inside out.

The Royal College of Physicians “Anatomy of a Building” exhibition runs until 13 Feb 2013 and I highly recommend a visit to explore the mind and work of one of Britain’s most important and enduring architects.

By John Dyer-Grimes