Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A memorable occasion


Congratulations to our Master, Roger France for inviting Peter (Lord) Palumbo to speak to us about his (and our) architectural hero, at a convivial luncheon party held on board the sturdy Thames sailing barge ‘Ardwina’ at St Katharine’s Dock on 7th July. What we heard was not only a compelling impromptu chronicle about one of the most intriguing architectural ‘might have beens’ of the postwar rebuilding of the City of London, but was also a personal Odyssey in pursuit of architectural excellence. ‘MIES FOR LONDON’ proclaimed the Evening Standard, when the commission was publicly announced: today no journalist would chance his arm on such acclaim of modern architecture, and the message would circulate through myriad texts of ‘MIES4LONDON’.
Speaking quietly, without notes or any visual imagery, Peter Palumbo kept us enthralled for 45 minutes as he recalled his close encounters with (Ludwig) Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the true greats of heroic modernism. It was all bound up with the development history of one of the most challenging sites in the City of London, a wedge form tract between Poultry and Queen Victoria Street at a multi-branched intersection, which included, among other buildings, the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, Mansion House and the (then) Midland Bank headquarters, the last designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, built 1924-39.

In the early 1960s, Palumbo senior acquired the freehold of 40% of the potentially lucrative development site. This was a time when planning legislation had finally been freed from the onerous clawback of development value enhanced through gaining planning permission for redevelopment of urban sites, which had been a key provision of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Palumbo senior was aware of his son’s already profound appreciation of modern architecture, and requested suggestions for an architect for the development of the site – ‘Mies van der Rohe’ was the unhesitant reply.

Peter’s appreciation of the arts had been shaped by his mother’s passion for music, and by a housemaster at his school who held a weekly seminar on great artists of all media, all styles, all periods. With nous or chutzpah Peter obtained Mies’ address in Chicago, and simply wrote to ask if he would be interested in the commission: ‘Meet me in my Chicago office, 10 am, 6 July 1962’ read the reply telegram. So Peter flew out, surprised at the early time of day for the meeting as Mies was notoriously a ‘night person’. He asked two questions – have you seen H. P. Berlage’s building in the City of London (Holland House, Bury Street, (1914-16) – Peter hadn’t, and how had he been introduced to architecture – hence the reminiscence at the beginning of his talk about the influence of his mother and his housemaster – an eclectic journey into architecture, which had evidently produced a discerning client. Peter explained that the Palumbos only owned 40% of the site: it might take 20 years to assemble sufficient land. Mies evidently realised that this would, in effect, be a posthumous commission, but acquiesced that. What level of detail was required? Everything, the building, the most refined detailing, bronze curtain walling, the complete interior down to door furniture, even ashtrays. Peter returned to London: some months later a heavy package arrived containing bronze curtain wall profiles; handles, hinges, locks and escutcheons; and a solid marble ashtray. Mies had accepted the commission. He hadn’t yet seen the site, but diverted to London, returning from a trip to Berlin in 1963, (where he had been discussing the projected National Museum in the Kulturviertel in West Berlin, in sight of the notorious Wall). In London, Mies noted the architectural surroundings of the Palumbo site. He was particularly impressed by the Lutyens building and proposed to open up a piazza, giving prominence to its meticulous classical front elevation, hitherto seen obliquely. The flank of Mansion House marked the east of the piazza, while the west was to be occupied by a 19 storey tower block. This was a period when postwar replanning of the City was beginning to produce tangible results, and the concept was welcomed by the City Architect and Planning Officer, and outline planning consent was granted.

Back in Chicago, Mies worked up the design of the building. Some critics claimed that it was a smaller scale repeat of the Seagram Building in New York (Mies’ refined Manhattan masterwork, with Philip Johnson, 1954-8). Not so, Peter says, the 'less is more' mantra was subtly reworked to reflect the proportions of the London surroundings. Peter recalled the last visit to London, when he wheeled the frail architect around the site, and when Mies decided that his proportions didn’t quite fit with those of Lutyens, and ordered a last reworking of the design. He was careful to match his storey lines to Lutyens’ cornice.

In answer to a remark after the talk, Peter confirmed that Mies had the utmost respect for Lutyens’ late elemental classicism – not so surprising when you consider the influence of the German master of Neo-Classicism, Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), on Mies’ mature work, such as Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (1952-6). Mies was well-known for his absolutism: his aphorism ‘God is in the detail’ is oft-invoked. Lutyens too was notoriously intolerant of the inexact. Looking at a working drawing by one of his assistants he noticed a poorly resolved roof detail. ‘But Sir Edwin, nobody will see it’: ‘God sees it’ came the riposte.

On one of his visits to Chicago, Peter was sitting in the lobby of the Drake Hotel (around the corner from Mies’ Lake Shore Drive apartments) when he picked up a copy of the Chicago Tribune. Idly leafing through he came across a boxed small-ad, ‘Farnsworth House for sale’. This elegant minimalist weekend house, downstate from suburban Chicago, in Plano, Illinois, had been designed and built for the singular Dr. Edith Farnsworth in 1946-50. Peter called the number, Dr. Farnsworth answered and invited him to view the building that afternoon. He was due to lunch with Mies, and was apprehensive when he told him where he was going, as Farnsworth had tried (unsuccessfully) to sue her architect for a cost overrun. The Farnsworth House had been neglected, with evident traces of the owner’s ill-trained dog on carpets and bedspreads. It would take commitment and an open-ended budget to return the house to its pristine glory. Nevertheless, an understanding was reached that Peter would purchase the house from Dr. Farnsworth. This took its place in a remarkable portfolio, which included Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul, Neuilly, Paris (1952-6) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Kentuck Knob’, Pennsylvania (1954). After severe flooding in 1995, and the encroachment of suburban Chicago, Peter disposed of the Farnsworth House to a Trust but retains happy memories of its restored prime. It had evidently been the favourite of his three iconic modern houses, although his reply to that question tactfully began with ‘the one I’m in at the moment’.

Peter Palumbo knew Mies for about seven years. During that time he deepened his knowledge of the master’s work, and in conversation gained a vivid impression of the fruitful period in the 1910s, when Modernism evolved out of the rigorous application of Arts and Crafts principles, which underlay the precursors of the Bauhaus. The Berlin office of Peter Behrens (1868-1940) was also a key test bed of ides: Mies, Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969) all worked there around 1910. The arrival of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), hounded out of Chicago after eloping with Mamah Borthwick Cheyney, to supervise the publication of Wasmuth’s portfolio of his work, brought the American master’s work to European attention. In the 1920s, the emergence of true Bauhaus Modernism brought the collaboration of Behrens, Corbusier, Gropius and others on the Weissenhof Siedlung (1927) at Stuttgart, under the leadership of Mies van der Rohe. After closure of the Bauhaus at Dessau, Mies attempted to re-open it at Berlin, emigrated to the United States in 1937, settling in Chicago, and taught at the Armour Institute (later the Illinois Institute of Technology). The rest is history.

And what happened to the projected London building? The full site was assembled by 1982, but the planning context had changed. Conservation of historic buildings and areas had moved to the top of the agenda. Despite enlisting the support of many architectural critics, and, tacitly, of Mary Lutyens, the youngest of the architect’s five children, the detailed scheme was rejected, and failed on Appeal. It was suggested to Peter that a more contextual design was required. The new design by James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates also proved controversial, particularly after Prince Charles referred to it as ‘an old 1930s wireless set’. The Mappin and Webb building was listed, and it took another approach and reference to the House of Lords before building went ahead. It took 30 years from Peter Palumbo’s first meeting with Mies to the finishing touches being put to the Stirling building. Virtually half a century after his initial meeting with Mies van der Rohe and a quarter century after the final discarding of his scheme, Peter Palumbo can in public reflect on the saga without rancour. His enthusiasm for Mies is undimmed. The totality of the project would have been a late flowering of the Germanic gesamst kunstwerk, which had its roots in the arts and crafts approach of the early 20th century. However controversial, it would have provided a building of a quality and consistency (which was conspicuously lacking in many of the urban redevelopment projects of the 1960s and 1970s in the City), with a design of its era, and yet timeless. In commissioning the project, Peter Palumbo is rated as one of the greatest patrons of 20th century commercial architecture. His account of his meetings with Mies was enthralling.

Dr Mervyn Miller
Junior Warden
9 July 2010