Welsh School of Architecture

Research Projects

An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson

Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite

An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson (Ashgate 2005) is a distinctive study of the life and architectural career of one of the most significant makers, theorists and teachers of architecture to have emerged in the England in the second half of the twentieth century. Exceptionally in an architectural study this book (supported by grants from the Graham Foundation and British Academy) interweaves biography, critical analysis of the projects, and theory, in its aims of explicating the richness of Wilson's body of work, thought and teaching. Drawing on the specialisms of its authors, it also examines the creative and psychological impulses that have informed the making of this work- an oeuvre whose experiential depth is recognized by both users and critics.

Wilson's work seeks an order that is not self-contained but is rather open to site, to light, to human touch, and to circumstance: as he sees it the rival claims of Art and Life demand an ethical choice. Thus his work might be characterised as an architecture of invitation that is predicated on the notion of architecture as a Practical Art whereby form is born out of a process of painstakingly searching out the particular and psychological needs of the user.

Taking a broadly chronological approach to Wilson's life and career, the book begins by addressing Wilson's background and early life, and his architectural education at Cambridge University and the Bartlett - interrupted by his Naval service in the Second World War. His important role in the Independent Group and the visionary, Le Corbusier inspired, years of 'building the New World' at the London County Council are then examined; a period that culminates in his move to Cambridge in 1956 to teach at the University School of Architecture and to work with Leslie Martin.

The gradual evolution of his own practice in the 1960's is investigated, the designs and projects of that studio, and the deepening impact of Aalto's work and thought. While The British Library is rightly seen as the culmination of Wilson's work, this achievement is set here in the much richer context of his other projects - realised and unrealised - his teaching and theoretical writing. Wilson's passion as a major art collector is also recorded and the impact of his years as Professor at Cambridge (1975-89). This wide-ranging study concludes with a chapter devoted to Wilson's theoretical writings and architectural criticism.

The ethic identified here takes Wilson beyond technocratic obsessions per se, or transient pre-occupations with style, towards a much more radical agenda than many would recognise, in its two-fold attention to both the 'inner' and 'outer'. Inner, in its address of the psyche, physiological needs and an equally rigorous appraisal of patterns of use: outer in its recognition of the claims of symbolic form within the community and the city and within the context of a wider metaphysic. Such agendas are timely and throw a significant challenge to the pervasive individualism of the object-city of 'landmark' architecture. The book is richly illustrated with 250 illustrations and line drawings.