Colin St John Wilson RA
Born: 14 March 1922
Died: 14 May 2007
Elected ARA: 31 May 1990
Elected RA: 26 June 1991
Category of Membership: Architect
Sandy Wilson’s long career provides a link between the intense debates about the very nature of art and architecture of the 1950s and contemporary practice. Service in World War II interrupted his studies at Cambridge and the Bartlett School at UCL, but while on leave in London he took the opportunity to spend money he saved while on active service with contemporary art dealers. An appreciation of art and other cultural disciplines has always been a hallmark of his work. It runs through his two principal achievements, the vast British Library which opened in 1997, and his stint as professor of architecture at Cambridge University from 1975 to 1989, and underpins his approach to redesigning the Royal Academy Schools.
Like many architects of his generation Wilson aspired to work on the building programmes of the Welfare State. After graduating he joined the London County Council architects department and he quickly became associated with its head, Sir Leslie Martin (late RA). When Martin became professor of architecture at Cambridge, Wilson joined him as a lecturer. He worked with Martin on Harvey Court at Caius College, and designed an exquisite lecture room extension to the Georgian terrace which houses the school of architecture, as well as a pair of houses for himself and a friend. He just missed out on meeting the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein whose work has long fascinated him.
Following Wittgenstein, Wilson argues that ‘meaning lies in use’, and his designs always have a basis in function. But function verges on the moral. In Wittgenstein’s words, ‘where there is nothing to glorify there can be no architecture’, taking the moral into the realm of aesthetics. Such intellectual grounding served Wilson well during the fervid debates in the 1950s over the nature of art. He was close to the Independent Group and some of his work bears similarities with Brutalism, in the sense of striving to make an aesthetic out of ordinary building materials.
In the early 1960s Wilson worked with Martin on the St Cross Law Library in Oxford, developing a generic pattern for reading rooms which synthesises the poetic and prosaic functions of a library. A high roof light bathes a central reading area where most users work with natural light. Around the perimeter are private carrels for staff. Lower ceilings define less important zones, for reference books and catalogues. Shortly after it was completed Wilson started work on the British Library, varying the formula across 11 separate reading rooms. Interspersed with art works, and organised around the tower containing the King’s Library, its national and monumental functions become explicit.
Contact details for further information