Sir Jim

Reyner Banham

  • Memoirs of an Unjust Fella: An Autobiography by J.M. Richards
    Weidenfeld, 279 pp, £10.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77767 X

In the travel-starved Fifties, when the journey was often more glamorous than the destination. Sir Hugh Casson began one of his Observer articles: ‘As the airport bus rolled along Chelsea Embankment, I looked up and saw a light burning late in the study of the architectural correspondent of the Times. No doubt he was writing, “Sir Hugh Casson, whose death in an air accident …” ’

A good Cassonian ploy. Those who were outside the game would be impressed that he knew who the Times architectural correspondent was; those who knew that evasive figure to be J.M. Richards would be interested to learn where he lived; and those who knew Richards personally would groan: ‘Typical Jim. Up all night working on an obit.’

The anonymity of a Times byline – ‘Our Architectural Correspondent’ – was, in some ways, the crowning achievement of his public career. It made him the connection between architecture and the Establishment, a role for which he was peculiarly well fitted by background (Anglo-Irish, Church, Army and some land), training (Architectural Association School, plus practice in London, Ireland and North America) and professional experience as the editor of the Architectural Review on and off since 1935. And he knew absolutely everybody.

In his case, however, architecture meant the Modern Movement, something which the Establishment didn’t like at the beginning of his career, and nobody at all seemed to like by the end of that career in the early Seventies. In 1972, he gave the Annual Discourse to the Royal Institute of British Architects – the high point of the intellectual year for the architectural Establishment – and he called it ‘The Hollow Victory’, for he could see that he had blown it. The public and political part of his life had helped litter the face of the land with ugly and irresponsible lumps and had ended in comparative disaster, not the Utopia of socially progressive structures he had fought for ever since he became a working journalist.

That’s a familiar story, of course. Writing shock-horror-sensational stories of the ‘failure of Modern architecture’ has been a lucrative occupation for the likes of Simon Jenkins, but unlike Jenkins, Richards was the Great Insider. As he said in ‘The Hollow Victory’, he was ‘in the middle of the campaign for modern architecture’, and sure enough, among the illustrations to Unjust Fella, there is a group photograph of the entire Modern Movement in architecture (the lot, bar Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe), and there’s Jim, modestly in the back row but practically in the middle.

The progress (or retreat) of the Modern Movement in architecture from its Thirties role as a revolutionary cadre of the Popular Front to its recent disgrace as the very epitome of ‘Faceless Liberal Oppression’ is one of the great tragedies of hubris and hope in our times, and the Great Insider should be able to reveal to us the inner chemistries of its rise and fall. He doesn’t; I suspect he can’t. The places and dates are all here, because he was there, in the middle. The protagonists are named, blamed or praised as necessary, because he knew them all. But we learn almost nothing about them, because we learn almost nothing about Richards either. This glazed reticence may, however, tell us something in itself, especially if it is viewed as part and parcel of the public persona of the man in the middle of the Modern Movement.

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