Originally published in May 2013, Neil Bingham and Jeremy Melvin, respective curators of Sir Hugh Casson PRA: Making Friends and Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out, discussed with me the careers of these two architects and, despite their radically different outlooks, a common ability to make connections – intellectual, aesthetic and social.
Hugh Casson (1910–1999) and Richard Rogers (b. 1933) seem much more than a generation apart when one considers their ambitions for architecture as an aesthetic, social and technological force, and in their conception of the social role architects should play. Yet as President of the Royal Academy, Casson embraced the new and different: a year after he was elected in 1977, Rogers became an ARA, and in 1984, the final year of Casson’s transformative tenure, Rogers became a full member. Two concurrent exhibitions give visitors an insight into these two architects who Melvin describes as ‘two of the greatest architectural showmen of the twentieth century’, and the world of architecture that they helped to define.
‘What unites Casson and Rogers as architects’, Bingham observes, ‘is that they are both connectors’. ‘A man of great wit and humour’, Casson connected to a huge world beyond architecture; Rogers, ‘continually connects within and beyond his office’. Casson began his successful partnership with Neville Conder in 1952 when they won the masterplan competition for the Sidgwick Site in Cambridge. But then, ‘Casson did all the royal jobs on his own: the Royal Yacht Britannia, a wonderful suite at Windsor Castle (photographed especially for the exhibition), work at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham. Everything else is really Casson Conder’. While, as Bingham observes, Conder led on the design, ‘Casson was always in on every job, he would always make a comment or bring in a concept, and it was always the right comment ... he was the office critic, the connector’.
Remaking the Royal Academy
When Casson was elected President of the Architectural Association in 1953–54, he was riding the wave of having been the Director of Architecture for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Under his presidency, Rogers entered the school, initially gaining little success in his studies but graduating with enough credibility to win a Fulbright Scholarship to Yale. After a successful career as an architect, journalist, author, and professor at the Royal College of Art, Casson’s election as President of the Royal Academy in 1976 made him, in Bingham’s words, ‘the country’s most well known architect, a public figure, only really rivalled by Basil Spence [of Coventry Cathedral fame]’.
In many respects, Casson remade the Royal Academy in his own image, creating an institution that was personable and social, one that could foster new and competing ideas by making connections with new Members of quite different outlooks – and, of course, through founding the Friends of the Royal Academy in, literally, ‘making friends’, the subtitle of the exhibition. As Melvin notes, ‘Casson really went against the 1970s belief that arts institutions were better off government funded’. This was an idea with which Rogers had sympathies. Despite its radicalism, ‘Rogers was wary of the Pompidou being named after a president and being under centralised government control’. ‘Casson’, Melvin suggests, ‘understood there was something interesting in not being that; instead, working between the cracks of British society to create something between a state-funded institution and a private gallery’.
‘1978 was a significant moment for Rogers’, Melvin notes, between the start of the Lloyd’s building and ‘the [Centre Georges] Pompidou which had opened the year before. Rogers was seen, probably by Casson himself, as being someone who was making waves in architecture for cultural organisations’. Rogers had come across Casson’s work as a young man visiting the Festival of Britain in 1951. Not yet at architecture school and about to go into the army, Melvin describes how for Rogers, as it did for many, ‘the Festival marked an extraordinary outbreak of colour. There was a feeling that before everything was grey. The Festival was this wonderful moment where there was fun and lightheartedness’. Melvin suggests, ‘the Pompidou can be seen as a version of the Festival of Britain by someone who had been a student of [the Brutalist architect and thinker] Peter Smithson. There’s a conceptual rigour to it but it also picks up on popular culture, mass entertainment and fun. While there are certainly other in influences, without the Festival of Britain, the Pompidou might have taken a different course’.
‘The very idea of an academy came naturally to Casson’, remarks Bingham. Coming from a conventional British upper-middle-class background, he was about to take Classics at Cambridge but suddenly switched to architecture at the last moment. Aware of the classics but without the same academic grounding, Melvin describes Rogers as ‘a sharp observer of the interface between the everyday and cultural aspects of modern life, underpinned by a very powerful social sensibility, a sense of fairness and justice’. Born in Florence, he frequently refers to the great Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi, partly, Melvin notes, because he has always maintained that affinity with Florence, and also because ‘Brunelleschi was so overtly an inventor who had to solve massive technical problems’.
For Rogers, architecture must belong to its time in social and technological terms, a belief that has a strong affinity with modernism. Casson, Bingham says, ‘professed no ideologies’. ‘He loved all types of people and all types of architecture’, promoting Victorian architecture at a time when it was deeply out of fashion. ‘The thing about Casson was that he was in essence a watercolourist’. ‘While people say watercolour is light and easy, and it has that amateur veneer, it is in fact extremely difficult; you have to work fast and have that ease but at the same time there is a lot of skill behind it – in many ways, that sums up Casson’s personality’. The analogue for Casson’s watercolours are Rogers’ notebooks, in which he collects snippets of information, little sketches and thoughts, all with a view to working out and making connections, as his architecture does in both a structural and social sense. If anything unites Casson and Rogers it is that common ability to make connections, and also their showmanship: both in different ways, becoming public figures and advocates for architecture to be social, inclusive and, perhaps above all, fun.