RA Magazine Winter 2008
Issue Number: 101
Out to lunch: Trevor Dannatt RA
No time like the present
Trevor Dannatt RA's buildings span more than 60 years and yet he is still a busy architect, as Nigel Billen hears over lunch in Fortnum's
Trevor Dannatt RA at lunch in St James’s Restaurant Photograph by Julian Anderson
Trevor Dannatt RA has his 90th birthday planned. On 15 January 2010, he’ll be celebrating the completion of his latest architectural commission, a six-bedroom, 450-square metre house in Petersfield, West Sussex. Good reason to raise a lunchtime glass to the Royal Academy’s former Professor of Architecture; just don’t assume that this latest build will be his last.
‘I still go into the office every day,’ Dannatt says as we settle down for lunch in St James’s Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason. ‘Except Friday,’ he corrects himself. ‘That’s sacrosanct.’ His extra day of rest is often spent performing in a musical trio with his wife and a friend; Dannatt plays piano to recorder and flute.
St James’s Restaurant is a perfect place to talk. Quiet and spacious, the service is friendly and the food excellent (the special, lobster linguine with girolle mushrooms, a lunchtime indulgence I refuse to feel any guilt about).
Fortnum’s is also a mere hop and a skip to the Academy where, fuelled only by two light starters, Dannatt is heading next. He has a Council meeting that will allow him to catch up on the latest plans, by fellow RA David Chipperfield, for the integration of 6 Burlington Gardens with Burlington House.
As a former Professor of Architecture at the Academy he still has ideas for new initiatives. He wonders, for example, if the RA shouldn’t run a post-graduate course in urban design.
Trevor is an engaging lunch companion, but there is a seriousness to his approach to his craft. You sense it in Roger Stonehouse’s recently published monograph of his work, Trevor Dannatt: Works and Words. In the foreword, Sir John Tusa describes the ‘classical, harmonious, balanced, modernism’ of Dannatt’s work and a building like his 1958 Laslett House, commissioned by Cambridge academic Peter Laslett, has an immediate appeal in its cool beauty. But much of his architecture belongs to less glamorous, public sector buildings. Civic works, large and small, from an era inspired - as Dannatt was - by Le Corbusier’s modernity, but now often dismissed as Brutalist or worse.
Dannatt’s work never fell into this category. From halls of residence at northern universities, to retirement homes in south London, his designs are marked by appropriateness of scale and quality of construction. He championed his ideas, and those of the Scandinavian architects he admired, in the Architects’ Year Book which he edited from 1948 to 1962. But would he have built a high rise? ‘It would have been tempting, but maybe better that I didn’t.’
If he had built high, the result would have been beautiful rather than brutal. He compares his biggest commercial work, the King Faisal Conference Centre and Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia built in the mid-1970s, to a ‘temple set against a residential hill’. In an early sketch the buildings shimmer on the horizon like a mirage.
Other high-profile works don’t fit modernist stereotypes either. His Victoria Gate entrance to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (1992) with its pergola roof and water feature was a friendly adornment to a favourite place. Probably most distinguished of all is his British Embassy in Riyadh (1985) and he is proud of the ‘deep regeneration’ work carried out at the University of Greenwich, close to where he was born.
More controversial than his own work has been his championing of London’s South Bank. In the early 1990s, the man who had worked with Peter Moro and Leslie Martin in the building of the Royal Festival Hall set up the South Bank Group with Judith Strong and Kate Heron campaigning to save the Hayward and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. ‘We had some good effect,’ he says about the campaign now, and it must be satisfying to see the turnaround in the public’s affection for the South Bank.
Ask him whether he feels the built environment is improving and he admits it is difficult to ‘distinguish between nostalgia and dispassionate involvement’. There are things he doesn’t like: ‘Hugh Casson used to say it is not the buildings that matter but the spaces between them. Sometimes I don’t think the relationship between buildings is considered any more.’
Dannatt has always had a good eye. He started collecting paintings when just 22. In 2006, he donated by means of a future bequest much of his private collection to the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester (where he was professor of architecture). It included pieces by Eduardo Paolozzi, Paul Nash and his close friend Patrick Heron - over 80 works in all. He has also collaborated with artists and designed gallery shows, notably the acclaimed Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1958.
Dannatt would like more time to himself to paint. But, so long as there is the day job to do, it will have to wait. He chuckles at the thought of his other current project and the unaccountable three years he’s been working on it: a new lavatory for fellow Academician, Anthony Eyton. Still, at least he is being paid with a painting.
- Trevor Dannatt: Works and Words by Roger Stonehouse (£29.95, Black Dog); St James’s Restaurant Fortnum and Mason, Piccadilly, London W1, 0845 602 5694, www.fortnumandmason.com
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