Rodney Gordon: brutalist architect

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Rodney Gordon: brutalist architect Hyfler/Rosner 8/14/08 9:15 PM
From The Times
August 15, 2008

Rodney Gordon: brutalist architect who worked with Owen

The epithet "young architect" is habitually applied to any
architect under the age of 50. Few practitioners get a break
before they are middle aged. Rodney Gordon was one of those
who did. He was still in his twenties when he designed the
first major building of his astonishing and truncated
oeuvre. By the time his exact contemporary Richard Rogers
achieved fame at the age of 38 by winning the competition
for the Pompidou Centre in 1971, Gordon's career was waning

It was a career unlike any other in the past half-century of
English architecture: it happened the wrong way round. He
designed nothing less than than a handful of masterpieces -
then it was virtual silence. And his art has been treated
with a contemptuous shoddiness commensurate only with its

That, however, is hardly surprising, given that Gordon was a
Brutalist, probably the greatest (as well as unquestionably
the youngest) of the English Brutalists and thus a ready
target for indolent bien-pensants whose antipathy to the
architecture of the 1960s is as drearily predictable, as
dismally unseeing, as was their parents' and grandparents'
to that of the 1860s. These people fail to differentiate
between the many strains of Modernism and, more importantly,
between what was good and what bad. Nor, in their arrogance,
do they realise that tastes change. Today Brutalism is
admired by a new generation of aesthetes as opposed to the
clichéd, knee-jerk calumnisation of "concrete monstrosity",
as John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster were to "Victorian

The word Brutalism was coined by the architectural theorist
Reyner Banham. It is a bilingual pun on the French béton
brut (raw concrete) and art brut (Dubuffet's word for
outsider art) and the all too plain English word brutal. If
only Professor Banham had failed to commit it to paper and
had dreamt up a less loaded term, the fate of buildings in
this idiom might have been happier, for their opponents,
apprised only of the English component, would not have had
the ammunition of what seems like a nomenclatural admission
of culpable aggression.

On the other hand they might still have abhorred it, for
Brutalism committed the grossest of sins in English eyes. It
abjured the picturesque in favour of the sublime. It scorned
prettiness. "It put on," as John Vanbrugh, a brutalist avant
la lettre, had it, "a masculine show". A show which did not
preclude a strangely butch delicacy, a steely effeminacy.
Gordon might have worked in concrete but he made it sing.
His buildings were articulated rather than monolithic. More
than any other English Brutalist he had looked at
Constructivism. Gordon's professed aim was to create an
architecture that was "raw, dramatic, sculptural". At the
Tricorn in Portsmouth and Trinity Square in Gateshead he
succeeded on a vast scale, unparalleled in Europe. These
buildings were indeed extraordinarily sculptural, their
silhouettes were audacious and poetic, jagged and
rhetorical. They were thrilling structures that seem to be
forces of nature, like fortresses in Castille which grow
from the earth.

But they were shopping centres with car parks, mere shopping
centres with car parks. The Derwent Tower (aka the Dunston
Rocket), also in Gateshead, was council housing, mere
council housing. Gordon was an artist who believed that the
everyday should be touched by the exceptional, that usually
banal building types ought to be as well made as cathedrals
and so rendered rather less banal. But there exists to this
day a preposterous architectural hierarchy which has nothing
to do with the quality of the building and everything to do
with its use. In the 1960s new university buildings,
post-Vatican II churches, and theatres were respectable
commissions. Commercial buildings and speculative
developments were not.

Gordon possessed every architectural gift save those that
matter most: he was no businessman and was a poor
self-publicist. Hence his difficult partnership with Owen
Luder - "a businessman," in the words of a former employee,
"who happened to have architectural qualifications". Luder
had a talent for architectural politics: he was twice
president of the RIBA and even considered offering himself
as a parliamentary candidate; regrettably he could not
decide which party deserved him.

Gordon and Luder needed each other as much as they disliked
each other. Gordon acknowledged that he was reliant on Luder's
persuasive salesmanship and tireless schmoozing to get the
commissions that enabled him to design with something close
to carte blanche. He later wrote, gleefully biting the hand
that fed: "If it meant selling my grandmother or working for
Owen Luder, provided I was free to implement my ideas, I
would do it . . . and without a second thought I did."

Luder, five years Gordon's senior, was a hard-nosed,
industrious grafter from the Old Kent Road who, with great
determination, had worked his way through the Brixton School
of Building and the Regent Street Poly: he knew that the
process of architecture was a matter of committees and
compromises, budgets and restraints, of horse trading and
connecting well, of tactfully balancing the conflicting
interests of planners and clients. Rodney Gordon could
hardly have been more different. He was exotic, convinced of
his brilliance, feckless, charming, impatient, tirelessly
hedonistic, uncompromising. And he considered architecture
an art.

He was born in Wanstead, East London, in 1933 to
non-observant Jewish parents. (He too was secular but was a
determined, sometimes belligerent champion of Israel.) His
father was Polish-Russian, his mother Chilean. They were
well off. They moved to High Wycombe and then, in 1945, to
Chelsea. They spent a lot of time at the races.

Their only son was academically precocious and went up to
University College Hospital Medical School at 16 in 1949.
Two years later, inspired by the Festival of Britain, he
enrolled at the Hammersmith School of Building, where he was
taught by the émigré German modernist Arthur Korn, who had
been in partnership with Erich Mendelsohn. Korn captivated
Gordon and encouraged him to apply to the Architectural
Association, then, as now, a hot house.

Gordon graduated from the AA in 1957 and went to work for
the London County Council architects department, a sort of
de facto postgraduate school through which scores of
subsequently celebrated architects had passed. It was during
this period that he designed the now listed Michael Faraday
Memorial at Elephant and Castle, an ingenious cloak over an
electricity sub-station which has mystified millions of

He also designed a predominantly timber house (again listed)
for himself and his wife at Walton-on-Thames, though he
would live there for less than five years before his
marriage broke up and he returned to his natural habitat,
Chelsea, just in time for Swinging London, where he devoted
much energy to fast cars and starlets.

At the very end of the 1950s he had hooked up with Luder and
had gone into creative overdrive. First there was Eros House
in Catford. Ian Nairn wrote: "A monster sat down in Catford,
and just what the place needed . . . a staircase tower which
is either afflicted with an astounding set of visual
distortions or is actually leaning . . . the most craggy and
uncompromising of new London buildings turns out to be full
of firm gentleness."

Then came the Tricorn. Nairn again: "At last there is
something to shout about in Portsmouth." He was of course
right. But Portsmouth did not see it that way. And nor did a
sinister constituency of philistine tricoteuses. Over and
again the Tricorn was adjudged the ugliest building in
Britain in crass polls organised by populists seeking favour
with "the people" who would, no doubt, given the chance,
equally deem Ulysses unreadable, the Second Vienna School
unlistenable and Resnais unwatchable. The Trident Centre in
Gateshead was a similarly magnificent structure, even more
outrageously expressionistic at street level and
exhilaratingly primitivist when seen from across the Tyne.

Gordon again used a gamut of subtly non-orthogonal angles to
achieve the distortions Nairn had noted at Catford, acts of
architectural legerdemain of the highest order. It was,
however, no more commercially successful than its Portsmouth
counterpart. By 1970, when Mike Hodges came to use the
Trident car park as a location in Get Carter, Gordon had
left Luder. He questioned whether he really was a partner
rather than an employee, he was infuriated that much of the
Trident's detailing had been subcontracted to journeymen
and, even though their authorship was an open secret among
architects, he resented Luder's ascription of his designs to
the Owen Luder Partnership.

Throughout the 1970s Gordon collaborated with the Abbott
Howard Partnership in a climate of growing mistrust for
assertive architecture. His reckless combination of overwork
and the pursuit of pleasure caught up with him and he
suffered a heart attack at 42. He subsequently formed Tripos
Architects with Ray Baum, but professional life without
someone like Luder was difficult. He had neither the
patience nor the persistence to woo clients who bored him.
Tripos built a factory for Ford at Dagenham, some R&D
facilities and labs at Bishop's Stortford, and an office
development at Richmond on Thames. Gordon's only important
post-Luder work, however, was a spectacularly outré
metal-clad tour de force at the bottom of St James's Street
which was, predictably, derided in the early 1980s but now
appears novel and inspired.

He drove Porsches, rode Ducattis and Bonnevilles and,
latterly, despite an amputation and a prosthetic leg, a
wonky motor scooter. He flew gliders and skied keenly. He
was instrumental in the foundation of the Uphill Ski Club
which teaches the physically handicapped to ski.

The Tricorn was demolished in 2004. The Commission for
Architecture and the Built Environment and English Heritage
declined to recommend that it be listed. Listing was also
denied to the now boarded-up Trident whose fate is to be
decided by "consultation" with "the people" and with Tesco.
The future of the Derwent Tower is also in doubt.

This great unsung original was curiously sanguine about the
municipally ordained disappearance of his works. He had had
his day making them, seeing his visions translated into
potently plastic actuality. His admirers properly compare
their destruction to the burning of books.

He is survived by his partner, his ex-wife and his son.

Rodney Gordon, architect, was born on February 2, 1933. He
died on May 30, 2008, aged 75