Wednesday, 28 March 2012

writing about architecture: biography

A. Beresford Pite (1861-1934)

“El Dorado, Yo hé trovado”
was the caption that a twenty year-old Beresford Pite gave to his Soane Medallion winning design for a fantastical medieval club house in 1882. In this claim to have found the Golden City is the boldly civic while ambitiously playful approach which marked all of his ensuing career. This Edwardian eccentric resists easy categories and is misfiled amongst revivalists of the late 19th century. His passion for an intelligent synthesis of constructional reasonableness and imaginative, even rebellious, creativity is asserted in his RIBA obituary which claimed Pite to be a “modern amongst the modernists”.

“If architecture ceased to reflect the age in which it lived, and the public thought by which it was surrounded, it ceased to be a living art, and it would become a mere museum exhibit.” (Pite, 1923) In developing his decorated modern, Pite owed a theoretical debt to Ruskin’s Gothic and Lethaby’s Greek, finding in both a description of a ‘primary style’, which was unlike the derivative confectionery of uncritical revivalisms. In this way Pite’s mix of mannerism, social concern and practical industrial requirements corresponded to the contemporary Arts and Crafts movement, but with an altogether more urban sensibility. The result is a lively primary architecture which bears the marks of a symbiosis of teaching and making in his practice. Teaching and making being two pillars which I would argue are the foundations which distinguish the work of this architect, who taught emphatically, by some accounts zealously, that architects must master or be mastered by the building process.

“When sculpture stands forward to illustrate a subject.. architecture should give it assistance and unobtrusive support, treating the whole as a jewel whose beauty is to be enhanced by an appropriate setting.” (Pite, 1888) Pite’s vision for the process of making, particularly sculpture, was inspired in large part by Michaelangelo, an affection for whom he demonstrated at the Institute for Chartered Accountants (1888-93)with Belcher and perhaps more freely at 82 Mortimer Street (1896). Figures sculpted in these designs assert Pite’s understanding of architecture as the mother of the arts, a concept terminally under threat over the course of his life. The use of sculpture was a vehicle for the personal or spiritual both in the building as a representation and in the building as a production, that is, as well as displaying the image of a human, sculpture demands the singular giftedness of a crafting individual human – a notion which Pite believed to be indispensable to art. We see his conviction in the idea of genius manifested equally in the flamboyance of his draughtsmanship, which may have owed something to William Burges and Albrecht Dürer, but ultimately expressed a single-minded freedom unobliged to any fashion or Zeitgeist.

“[The arrangement of teaching at the RCA] is a corrective to the tendency in talented students to accept their training and success in schools of applied art as a stepping-stone in an artistic career of unrelated idyllic art, either in painting or sculpture, of little ultimate benefit to the nation or profit to the artist.” From 1900 Pite taught as professor at both the Royal College of Art and the Brixton School of Building, and attempted with enthusiasm and some success to realise the pedagogical and professional ideal of interdependent art and architecture. If it can be said he influenced the cause of a diverse and adventurous architecture through teaching, he was also influenced significantly himself by the very process of teaching. A parallel has been drawn with Ruskin, for whom the experience of tutoring art to artisans at Frederick Denison Maurice’s Working Men’s College was the basis on which he was confident to believe Gothic to be practicable and so to commence work on the Oxford museum. For Pite, his work on the Euston Road (1906-8) in a piece of daring and persuasive classicism, came only after six years of doubts were assuaged by what he found in teaching.

Teaching defined much of Pite’s life. Driven by a religious devotion he considered the world of architecture to be a mission field, and he developed a reputation for provocatively thoughtful contributions in RIBA debates, exercising a passion for persuasion further tested on a platform at Speaker’s Corner. This dialogical evangelism demanded from Pite a sensitivity to listen to the questions of a context and required the strength to persuade by the expression his personal convictions in a language that could be understood. Both the process and reward of this missional way of being in the world find their parallel in his teaching of architecture and the two come together in his missionary commissions in Palestine and Uganda. Pite’s engagement to design a hospital in Jerusalem for the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews in 1892 began a series of buildings in that country, which were followed much later in his career by his cathedral for Kampala in 1918 and a training college in Mukuno 1924 for the Church Missionary Society. These were buildings which asked with an earnest and experimental curiosity, “In what style should missions build?” In reaction to the imperial imposition of much colonial architecture, the temptation for missions was to manufacture an indigenous pastiche. Pite, however, is noted for the sensitivity of his synthesis, he brought with him all the versatility that he had gained in years of dynamic dialogue over style put to the cause of a message, and he returned from these exercises with many lessons which he applied in the structure and message of occidentally inspired projects like Christchurch Brixton Road.

The notion of architects as messengers, had been gained from Burges, whose Cardiff Castle was the architectural work which best embodied the architect-as-anchorite understanding which Pite imported. This anchorite is one imprisoned to the compromise of being caught between heaven and earth, between utopia and commercialism, but a prisoner with a mission to act as an agent for the good of the city. Hence Pite’s was no pietistic faith, and from 1900 the socially diverse commissions which Pite chose, soup-kitchens and Harley Street practices, are notable as archetypal elements of a diffuse ideal city realised in the earthly city of London. The civic skill and creative art of so making the city were at odds with the professionalising trajectory of the RIBA, against which he rallied but never abandoned. He passionately argued that the Institution existed “not for the protection of the private interests of architects from unrestrained competition, but for the advancement of an art which creates a city out of the aggregate work of its members.” (1905)

The message Pite desired to convey in his work could be distilled to an urban optimism, defined against the “settled pessimism among architects, as well as among public men interested in art, on the subject of the general aspect of our cities” (Pite, 1905) but more specifically Pite’s was a call to us that we would join him as he “looked for the city, which had the foundations whose builder and maker is God.” (Obituary) This was his Golden City.


Based largely on the essays contained in this excellent collection:
Other worthy web appearances of ABP here:

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