The only award I ever won in Architecture was as a student in my final year at college in 1972. It was an annual prize awarded by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland for a design completed within a day. Without any hint of false modesty, I am convinced I only won it because the competition was itself so poor and most of the others were diligently concentrating on the push towards their finals. I was cavalier enough to think that I could afford the time-off to do it. With the prize money and as newlyweds we were able to make our first trip to the continent of Europe on a student charter flight to Amsterdam. It was a city of red lights and hippies, bicycles and cafes, canal houses and neckgables, with families eating, reading and socializing on the steps down to the street in the late afternoon sun, and everywhere that delicious smell of cigar smoke. It was at once an enchanting place full of light and learning. It seemed to be the epicentre of European liberal civilisation and culture. The pretext of the visit was to investigate and write something about the planning of the old city and by a chance encounter, I was introduced to someone who gave me access to a university library and so I found enough material to write a short dissertation and thus fulfil my obligation to the awarding body. On the Sunday we went looking for a church and found the English speaking church in the centre of the Begijnhof green. It turned out to be affiliated to the Church of Scotland. After listening to a dreary sermon on butterflies and being kind to sheep we mingled over coffee in the hall. There we met a young American student called Chip Carter clutching a copy of “Europe on 5 dollars a day” who in turn introduced to us a couple from the States, on their honeymoon, doing Europe, on a good bit more than 5 dollars a day. Our new found friends exuded the super confidence that we lacked and so we tagged along with them for the rest of the day, visiting the Van Gogh museum and skulking at the back in in embarrassment, when they insisted on asking every resident for directions in very loud English. It paid off, however, and in the evening we found a tiny evangelical church in a nondescript district of the city where we were told Hans Rookmaker worshipped.
Hans Rookmaker was a professor of history of art at the Free University of Amsterdam and wrote “Modern art and the death of a culture” It was a seminal work and played a significant part in my understanding of faith, philosophy, reality, art, the modern world and their mutual relationship. It sorted out my ideas on these subjects and helped me sharpen my thoughts on how architecture fitted into the grand scheme of things. In the college studios during the sixties there was no clear way forward and a confusion of philosophies (1). Some still held to the principles of design “commodity, firmness and delight” credited to Vitruvius and the historical critical method of Reyner Banham. The modern movement had run out of steam and we were crippled by the restrictions of the “form follows function” philosophy. In this discipline, there was no room for decoration or delight. Inevitable everything had to be justified in terms of utility and cost so no curves, no awkward shapes, no expensive materials, no elaborate constructions, just follow the basic requirements of the building and beauty would automatically arise. If it didn’t, it wasn’t your fault. Among my fellow students, Brutalism still had a strong following but some of my close friends were beginning to flirt with post-modernism. While Hans Rookmaker seldom mentioned architecture, it was his analysis of the state of art in the 20c which opened a door in my mind and threw an enormous light into an otherwise murky interior. It is hard to describe how inspirational that was. Suddenly the parts belonged to the whole, God was as much interested in the means as the end and beauty meant more than utility.
The service in the drab school hall was in Dutch and mainly lost on us but we felt welcomed all the same, at home and able to share in the worship. After the service we were ushered over to meet the great man, our American friends enthusiastically holding aloft their copy of the volume for signature. “And this is Crawford – he’s from Scotland he’s read your book” The old professor, already lighting up his pipe, was bemused, didn’t want to be photographed and swiftly made a sharp exit, all the while pretending that he couldn’t speak English. The pastor, however, was more willing to interact socially and invited us to his home in an apartment far out on the edge of the city. This was a massive scheme of modern apartment blocks and setting for the notoriously famous “Blue movie”. We enjoyed a lovely evening chatting over delicious potato salad and watermelon with a crate of Amstel Pils bought from a neighbour and the air soon thick with cigar smoke. The children were playing with a brightly coloured rubber toy. In a crazy sequence of connections, it turned out to be a prop from the set of David Lean’s “Ryans daughter”, where the children tease the village idiot over the lobster he had caught and it is thrown around in the crowd. In the film it is perfectly realistic. Handling and playing with the toy you could see why. But all of the connections were beginning to take too many bizarre turns and we had had quite enough excitement for one day, so we found our way back into the city, to our little room high up in a canal house in the Jordaan district. Hans Rookmaker was to speak at a conference in Scotland some years later but he died quite suddenly and so I was never able to hear him in the flesh.
But it didn’t matter, I had his book and other writings and now more than forty years later, reading again the well-thumbed volume, I find that it has lost none of its relevance and I can feel again the thrill and excitement of a new discovery and the possibility of more.
1 To be fair it was not all confusion. James Macaulay’s lectures on architectural history were inspirational. Looking back was the best way of making sense of where we were, so that we could begin to chart a way forward.