Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Royal College of Physicians in Regent's Park: Denys Lasdun's Modernist Masterpiece

On Monday I attended a course at the Royal College of Physicians in London, which gave me the opportunity to have another look around one of the most significant modern buildings in Britain. It is in Regent's Park next to John Nash's famous Regency terraces, to which it provides a counterpoint. It harmonises beautifully in with the older buildings, while being uncompromisingly modern.

The college was completed in 1965, the work of modernist architect Denys Lasdun, who later designed the National Theatre, and is regarded as one of his masterpieces. From the outside the dominant impression is of an imposing horizontal cantilevered white slab resting on a dark base.

The main interior space is dominated by the large Marble Hall (renamed the Lasdun Hall in honour of the architect) with a staircase rising up the middle. A generous budget allowed Lasdun to use luxurious materials, and to work with highly skilled engineers, as seen in the Sicilian marble used in the staircase, the specially commissioned porcelain wall tiles from Candiolo in Italy, the double-storey panes of glass that were the largest that could be manufactured at the time, and the hydraulic wall between the Osler and Long rooms, that can be raised out of the way to form a single large hall.

Large windows frame views of the College gardens, and Regent's Park with its Nash Terraces, which become part of the whole composition.

It's a pleasure to walk through and explore, with unexpected viewpoints and beautiful details, such as this stairwell, illuminated by a hidden skylight that produces marvellous effects of light and shade.

Apart from the building itself, there is much to see. Paintings of presidents of the college line the walls, and there are historical exhibits on all floors.

The room leading to the small lecture theatre where our course was held houses a historical collection of medical instruments, like these tongue scrapers.

On the fourth floor there are  the celebrated "anatomical tables" wooden panels on which are mounted human veins, nerves and arteries dissected at the famous anatomy theatre in the University of Padua in the 17th century.

Outside is the lovely Medicinal Garden containing plants that are used for medicinal and other purposes.

Although I found the building a delight, it's not great if you are disabled. My wife organised a conference there some years back and despite the lifts, wheelchair users and other disabled people found it difficult and dispiriting to negotiate because of the multiple levels with short flights of stairs, such as the one seen on the left side of the picture below.

It's a shame, but I suppose the Grade I listed status of the building places limitations on on what can be done to improve this.

For more about the building, here is an excellent video:

I also thoroughly recommend a slim book, Anatomy of a Building by Rowan Moore, who also wrote this review of a recent exhibition at the College about its architecture. The book is available from the reception desk at the College, and can also be purchased online. It is primarily about the building, and also explores the influences and background behind it, and the history of the college.

One of the interesting illustrations in it is this juxtaposition of the RCP with Hawksmoor's Christ Church in Spitalfields, and Brunelleschi's early renaissance Pazzi Chapel in Florence, illustrating the influence of the earlier buildings on Lasdun's design.

While designing the College, Lasdun is also said to have been obsessed by a painting by Paul Klee, Uncomposed Objects in Space (1929), whose influence can be seen in the Marble Hall

Incidentally, the Royal Institute of British Architects is nearby, at 66 Portland Place. The art deco building is worth a visit in it's own right. It has a nice bookshop, and they often hold interesting exhibitions.

The Royal College of Physicians
11 St Andrews Place, Regent's Park, London NW1 4LE
Information for visitors

Further reading:

William JR Curtis. Seminal Works of Architecture Transcend their Time, Architectural Review September 2014. pdf

Rowan Moore Just What the Doctor Ordered, Observer, September 2014

Barnabas Calder, Guest Curator of the exhibition at the RCP, Commentary Article, September 2014

Rowan Moore. Anatomy of a Building. Royal College of Physicians 2014 (buy online)

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