Giles Gilbert Scott as creative model
Creativity often benefits from models. I’ve written about four models in previous posts: in August 2010 I proposed Harry Beck as a model for authorship; in March 2011 I reflected on Jim Ede as a model for publishing development; and in September 2011 I proposed the work of various musicians – especially the Bo Kaspers Orkester – as a model for creative business development.
Here I consider a further model, namely the work of the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960). Scott’s best-known buildings are probably Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral and two power stations in London – Battersea (now disused, perhaps soon to be redeveloped) and Bankside (now the Tate Modern museum). Even better known than these buildings, however, was his design for the red telephone box: though I doubt it ever gained much affection from disabled people, the design has long since become established as an icon of Britishness.
I have never visited the cathedral in Liverpool. The building of Scott’s I like most is St Joseph’s church in Sheringham, Norfolk. Those I know best are Cambridge University Library (‘the UL’, 1931-34) and, directly opposite, Clare College’s Memorial Court (1922-33). Both buildings have grown on me as I have got used to them.
Though Memorial Court lacks the obvious elegance of genuine Georgian architecture (crucially its windows are either six panes by four or four panes by four, as opposed to the classic ratio of 4:3), it feels very livable. As Pevsner wrote, “The scale is comfortable, and there is plenty of air and space”.
My original impression of the UL – as a passer-by, a third of a century ago – was extremely negative. I didn’t think libraries should look like power stations. But as a regular user of the building I have come to appreciate its qualities. I find it a very usable building, highly conducive to work.
What the buildings have in common, I think, is that they don’t yield their full value to the mere onlooker. One needs not only to gaze at the buildings but also move through them, spend time in them, and, above all, use them. Perhaps this distinction, between onlooker and user, accounts for my disagreement with Pevsner’s judgment that “an odd lack of decision goes through the whole design…One is never sure whether the building was meant to be functional or for display; modern or traditional”. Pevsner was writing as an onlooker: my own viewpoint is that of a user.
In fact, I think Pevsner’s got it precisely wrong. Functional or for display? Both. Modern or traditional? Both. That is the secret of Scott’s architecture. He produced things that worked, but provided them a sense of dignity – a blend in short supply (in aesthetics and in much else) during the era in which they were created. It is the key to the flexibility of his style, as applicable to I think of Scott as a great humanist architect, able to range between the secular and the spiritual. Ultimately, his buildings feel always firmly rooted in the earth, privileging (in, perhaps, a distinctively catholic manner?) the immanent over the transcendent.
It is these qualities that make him so congenial to me as a creative model. For example, when we acquired the rights for works such as 53 interesting things to do in your lectures and 53 interesting things to do in your seminars and tutorials – very functional books, but not, in their previous editions, at all suitable for display – we employed The Running Head to provide a new text design and selected images from Rika Newcombe’s paintings for the covers: this felt to me like dignifying the works under the influence of Scott.
It may be stretching things a little to say that the aim is the publish books the way Scott built St Joseph’s, Sheringham – but only a little, I think.