The anatomy of a building: Denys Lasdun and the Royal College of Physicians

In 1958, architect Denys Lasdun was handed a seemingly impossible task: design a radically modern building for a 500-year-old institution.

The anatomy of a building: Denys Lasdun and the Royal College of Physicians

He was told that this bold new construction must ‘harmonise’ with one of London’s most admired Georgian terraces and the landscape of Regent’s Park. This past exhibition told the story of Lasdun’s challenge and how he succeeded in building a masterpiece. 

Opened in 1964, the fifth headquarters of the college presented a complex blend of art and engineering while elegantly enclosing the ancient ceremonial history and traditions within a white-tiled casket of concrete and glass. Lasdun’s ‘eloquent demonstration of the marriage between old and new’ was listed Grade I in 1998 and in the words of the architect himself: ‘You can go and see it, and the building, if it has anything to say, will have to speak for itself'.

RCP building photo by Nick Rochowski
© RCP photo by Nick Rochowski
Lasdun hall photo by Nick Rochowski
Lasdun Hall photo by Nick Rochowski

Lasdun considered the Royal College of Physicians to be ‘by no means a perfect building – that would be boring.’ It is however undeniably unique, a ‘one-off’ creation combining the specific needs of the client, the modernist design choices of the architect, and the creative solutions of the engineers. 

Furthermore, Lasdun believed that ‘architecture needs more than the single mind – it needs a creative community of minds which include the client’. The briefing and design processes of the RCP building lasted for several years. They are exceptionally well recorded in the Lasdun archive at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) library drawings and archives collections. 

Early in the RCP’s design process, Lasdun arranged the building around a central courtyard. He wanted to create an enclosed, peaceful environment, like a Cambridge college or a ‘small-scale backwater’, where physicians could think and meet. 

Lasdun exhibition wallpaper

For Lasdun, ‘a court defines in physical terms a scholastic body, inward looking and protected from traffic noise.’ The large windows facing the garden bring the protected space indoors and into a second court, the Lasdun Hall. The RCP building was a great success for Lasdun. It earned him an international reputation as a leading British architect. The RCP commission helped Lasdun create his own unique ‘language of architecture’. It united his earlier interests in ritual spaces and classical architecture, and gave them a modernist twist. 

A key theme to emerge from the RCP is ‘urban landscape’ – where architecture is seen as an extension of the city or landscape, connected by bridges, platforms and terraces. Buildings should take in ‘the whole of human experience’, by extending relationships and creating a sense of belonging and participation. Lasdun’s urban landscape ‘vocabulary’ can be seen in his later buildings, most prominently in his university designs and his National Theatre on London’s South Bank. 

The anatomy of a building: Denys Lasdun and the Royal College of Physicians
Spotlight on modernist architecture Denys Lasdun's legacy