Born: 5 October 1944
Elected RA: 18 May 2000
Category of Membership: Architect
For Gordon Benson, architecture actively engages with physical locations and social activities to reveal their cultural significance. Growing up in Glasgow during the 1950s, his architectural sensibilities began to form as he unconsciously assimilated the austere and luminous language of its buildings. Encounters with CR Mackintosh’s buildings, and in particular the way they transform northern light, began to bring these perceptions to the level of consciousness. His studies at the Architectural Association introduced him to the complex modernism of Le Corbusier, and the potential it has to create rich and poetic meanings, an interest which led on to a fascination with the narrative structures of James Joyce, which he was able to explore in the Millennium Wing extension to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.
Benson’s first job after leaving the AA was in the housing group of Camden Council’s architecture department. In the early 1970s many local authorities employed large numbers of architectural staff, and some, like Camden, actively promoted innovative architecture as part of their social agenda. Working under Neave Brown and with his long-term collaborator Alan Forsyth, Benson explored how ordinary homes might be improved and enriched. But the political tide was turning against social architecture, and in the mid 1980s they left to form Benson and Forsyth, at the same time teaching at the AA, and in Benson’s case, as professor of architecture at Strathclyde University.
In 1991 they won a competition for an extension to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, their first major public building. Both in function and site, it offered opportunities to examine the character of Scotland, from its geological formation through to its historical traditions, and to its contemporary development. Forging a multi-faceted frame from his appreciation of modernism, it places references to specific historical events alongside actual artefacts to create a series of densely interwoven narratives, which explore the ideological construct of ‘Scottishness’.
The National Gallery of Ireland extension, completed in 2000, starts from analogous readings of Dublin. Its physical context is defined by a shift in the city’s grid pattern between Trinity College and the Republican Parliament. Like any part of central Dublin, it resonates with references to Joyce. Again Benson uses a rich interpretation of the modernist architectural language to address these large scale themes, and to forge a relationship between them and the important minutiae of circulation, curatorial priorities and other aspects of use.
Benson belongs to a generation of British architects who shared the social goals of the early modernists, but recognised that they often failed to exploit modernism’s expressive potential. In recent projects such as the competition entry of the Turner Centre in Margate, and housing at Battersea Power Station, Benson shows how that potential can be extended into powerful narratives.
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