William Curtis: AAI Critic's Lecture, November 2010

I confess. I do not own a copy of 'Modern Architecture since 1900'. According to our President, Hugo Lamont, during his introduction to last night's lecture, that put me amongst 5% of the audience. This morning, looking for reassurance in our bookshelves I feel as though I may be missing out on a significant source of reference to the Modern Movement. While I can recall and refer to battered college photocopies of individual chapters from that canonical book: Mies:(nature and the machine...), Aalto (..scandinavian development), Le Corbusier (form and meaning..), our own collection of books on the history of 20th Century Architecture seems, at times, heavy with the impassioned ideology, relentless categorisation or questionable selections of other writers. To take one case in point: Kostof's termination of the otherwise magnificent 'A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals' with his choice of Meier, Krier, Libeskind and Eisenmann still leaves me with a sense of... anti-climax?

During William Curtis's lecture, given as the Annual AAI Critics Lecture for 2010 in the Arts Building of Trinity College, the critical approaches taken by some of those writers was reopened to review and clarification. Or perhaps I should say, going by the tone of the lecture itself, 'torpedoed' mercilessly, with its main sails shredded and its crew left for dead in shark invested waters. The lecture's emphasis, supported by a series of personal photographs and drawings, drew on human experience itself; light, shadow, music, materiality and movement as opposed to an Architecture of direct ideological expression or one that required a philosophical text for support.

William Curtis opened the lecture with a genuine appreciation for the opportunity to return to Ireland after 44 years, recalling an enjoyable three hours in 1966 discussing poetry with the Professor of English at Trinity during an interview for a position he subsequently turned down. For him this felt like a homecoming of sorts and throughout the lecture it was clear there was much affection for Dublin both in his admiration of its finest works: "the neutral abstraction and repetition" of our Georgian terraces, and his sharp, witty and virulent attacks on some of the city's recent development. While he acknowledged his engagement with criticism and gave a valuable and hugely entertaining insight as to the perils and responsibilities of that role within contemporary society, he considers himself as someone with many involvements: whether it be as an historian, photographer, artist or as an active and experienced juror. 

Curtis himself emphasised the importance of the "building as the primary document" with visitations and direct experience as vital to our understanding and appreciation of Architecture - perhaps an issue the awards system in Ireland might learn from in future years?  Likewise, I hope this brief review encourages those AAI members absent last night to spend some time with the thing itself: this lecture in all its glorious audio entirety is available now for download in MP3 format and 'Modern Architecture since 1900' is now in its third edition, extensively revised. 

Douglas Carson, Dublin 2010

Top Image: Shadows and Writing: Ink on card, 1999