A painting of Outram, Streams of Consciousness, by Carl Laubin

A singular modern master

Architect John Outram fused high-tech and tradition to create his own unique style


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sometime in the 1950s three smart, somewhat diffident students enrolled at the Architectural Association, then as now one of the country’s leading schools of architecture. Each were in their own way outsiders and rejected the prevailing orthodoxies of the day. On graduating they pursued their own courses, ending up in wildly different places. 

One entered into a lifelong devotion to the canonic classicism handed down by Vitruvius and Palladio. Another advocated an architecture for a forward-thinking, technological age, taking inspiration from engineering. He predicted the buildings of the future would be more like robots than temples. The third saw no particular reason to choose one over the other.

He was John Outram. Technology was an early passion: during his National Service he learned to fly single-engined Harvard aircraft, while as a student he was drawn to the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller and designed a proto- high-tech project. But after experiencing Rome, Venice and Cyprus, he fell in love with Mediterranean culture and the classical city. Science fiction and the classical inheritance continued to inspire, but to him they did not represent opposite extremes. Once, in the middle of a technical article, he broke off to invite his readers to contemplate “catapulting a Wren church into outer space and watching it gently drift apart”.

Outram continued to fuse modernity and tradition in a singular body of work, bringing the past and the future into the present. He pursued an architecture which was “original in the sense of deriving from origins, and original in the sense of being new and unforeseen”. To this end he came up with an array of inventions which were unorthodox yet pragmatic. Some could be considered examples of “design fiction”: speculative prototypes from an imaginary world. 

His Harp Heating building of 1984-5 (below) sported a colonnade of hollow piers containing cabling and pipework. This so-called “robot order” was both a reincarnation of monumental classical columns and a reinterpration of the service towers of the modernist master Louis Kahn, to whom he was introduced by his tutor Peter Smithson.

By the 1980s, when exposed concrete was thoroughly discredited, Outram reformulated it to carry colour and pattern. At The New House at Wadhurst (1983-5) he collaborated with specialists to devise “blitzcrete” (below, right) — coloured brick fragments suspended in white concrete. “Doodlecrete”, a cobalt blue concrete incorporating white spirals, was devised for the 1993-5 Judge Institute of Management Studies in Cambridge. For an unbuilt scheme for the developer Stuart Lipton he trialled a composite masonry tile capable of being tessellated, rather like the geometric brickwork of Central Asian mosques. These techniques marked a return to Ruskinian constructional polychromy, where colour and texture is not skin deep but stamped all the way through, like a stick of rock.

Outram drew on a self-developed body of theory which combined metaphysics, ancient myths and his imagination. He envisaged his column grid as an infinite forest or an unexcavated hypostyle hall. In some layouts he could point out the life-stages of a river from its mountain source to its debouchment into the sea. Visiting Rome, he visualised the city’s landmarks standing in a primordial landscape, a “geomyth” of marble buried in brick-earth. These outlandish visual metaphors provided a theoretical framework both for design and the explanation of ideas to collaborators and clients. 

Outram was unconcerned that few people would be able to read his buildings in the way he did, maintaining they could engage with them however they chose. What does come across clearly is the drive to communicate, to reach out.

In later projects, his iconography was elaborated in complex, layered schemes of applied decoration. As his clients’ budgets precluded traditional craft techniques such as buon fresco, he resorted to hacking industrial technologies. For the 1994 Pugin exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum he developed “video masonry”, a monoprinting technique in which colour laser printer toner was fused onto plaster panels.

A detail of the Anne and Charles Duncan Hall at Rice University

His largest commission, Duncan Hall at Houston’s Rice University (1995-7) boasts an atrium with a “painted” ceiling made by printing an A1 watercolour onto acoustic tiles. It was as if the “decorated shed” posited by pioneering post-modernist Robert Venturi — a utilitarian box with slapped-on ornament — had been turned inside out. With added metaphysics.

Which brings us to post-modernism. In 1981, Outram was included — along with Jeremy Dixon, Terry Farrell, Piers Gough, James Gowan and Edward Jones — in an exhibition of “Six British Architects” curated by Charles Jencks and subtitled “post-modernism comes to England”. Since then, Outram’s work has been seen through the PoMo kaleidoscope in the same way that Alison and Peter Smithson, say, cannot be discussed without invoking the New Brutalism. Is it helpful? 

For many, the post-modern cap seems to fit: brought up within the modern movement, Outram rejected its dogmas and taboos to embrace plurality, ambiguity, wit, urban context, history and meaning. Yet he felt most post-modern architecture failed to live up to its promise; as early as 1981 he wrote of “the utter emptiness of its lexicon of decoration”.

The Judge Institute, Cambridge

PoMo or no, Outram’s work comes into sharper focus when seen alongside his contemporaries. With Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, AA graduates of a slightly later vintage, he shared a rigorous approach to detailing and a commitment to the humanist city, although what they took from classicism was very different. And he admired the freewheeling geometries and narrative architecture of Piers Gough, one of the few to fully embrace the Po-Mo label. 

Affinities could also be traced with the work of William Whitfield and John Melvin, whose well-crafted brick and concrete invites touch. Theirs was the generation which rediscovered the heft and patina of Victorian architecture and its polychromatic palette, which Outram found “so much better than neo-Georgian cream or primary pop-modern”.

When, in 1991, Outram was brought together with Norman Foster, Nick Grimshaw, Michael Hopkins, Richard Rogers and James Stirling at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, it was against Big Jim, his former tutor, that he was measured. “While Stirling transforms the great themes of the museum, the library and the university into playful machines,” one critic wrote, “Outram transforms production machines into a display of rhetoric and celebration.” At Venice, Stirling refused to speak to his former student.

While Outram’s over-scaled, wildly-decorated buldings tend to divide opinion, there are surely insights to be gleaned. Today, when classicists and modernists are again taking up arms in a culture war, his work points to the virtues of outsiderism, independent thought, open-mindedness and pluralism. It turns out you can have both robots and temples, after all.

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