Sharp Words: Selected Essays of Dennis Sharp

Commitment was the watchword of the life and work of Dennis Sharp, architect, professor, curator, editor, historian, and architecture critic.

By Louise Noelle
Photos: Perimeter Books

Commitment was the watchword of the life and work of Dennis Sharp, architect, professor, curator, editor, historian, and architecture critic. The range of activities to which he devoted himself clearly reveals this man’s deep-rooted passion, with a particular clarity of ideas and critical eloquence. In this sense the title of this compilation book, Sharp Words, could not be more appropriate. Published by the Architectural Association, under the care of Paul Finch and Yasmin Shariff, the volume offers an intelligent selection of his writings, as a tribute to his work after his death in 2010. The editor, Paul Finch, said in his presentation, “The samples of this publication well express the range of Dennis Sharp’s world.” For this multiplicity of interests as well as for “the pluralism and the generosity of approach,” the book is organized into fourteen selections of his publications and papers, and some of said selections are presented as facsimile.

The author of this article, Louise Noelle, with Dennis Sharp.

To better understand the range and importance of the writings in this book, a retrospective of the life of Dennis Sharp seems necessary. He was born in 1933 and completed his architecture studies at the Architectural Association (AA), London; later he also taught at the AA, where he was head of the Art and History Department between 1969 and 1982 and Editor General responsible for AA Quarterly and AA Papers. The foundation of this book lays in his long-lasting collaboration with this famed institution. He was later appointed as Editor of World Architecture, and, more recently, as an example of his endeavors to disseminate architecture, he took charge of the Art Book publishing house, characterized by an entirely new approach to the world of the built environment. Turning to other aspects of his career, it is necessary to mention that he was a regular and impassioned contributor at international forums, like the Comité International des Critiques D’Architecture (CICA), for which he organized several symposiums at the UIA (International Union of Architects) congresses and coordinated the CICA Book Awards. Similarly, he collaborated with DoCoMoMo from its very beginnings, and as a member of the International Specialist Committee on Register he prepared—together with Catherine Cooke—The Modern Movement in Architecture: Selections from the DoCoMoMo Registers(2000).

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Going back to the publication of his first books, it must be said that these works became indispensable for the study of twentieth-century architecture: Modern Architecture and Expressionism (1966); A Visual History of 20th Century Architecture (1972); Form and Function: A Source Book for the History of Architecture & Design 1890–1939 (1975); andSources of Modern Architecture: A Critical Bibliography (1967). Subsequently he focused on individual architects and movements in works such as Santiago Calatrava (1992); Kisho Kurokawa: From the Age of the Machine to the Age of Life(1998); The Rationalists and the Anti-Rationalists (2000); Eco Architecture—Eco Cities (2002); Bauhaus: Dessau (2002); and Connell Ward and Lucas (2008), among many others. He also published many articles that appeared in various important architectural periodicals from around the world.

These books, as well as his numerous articles, represented the rich body of work from which the editor had the difficult task of selecting a few writings that would represent his fruitful existence. These are organized in nonchronological order, since the first article, published in 2009, is related to his last book. The facsimile “Connell, Ward and Lucas: Men from Mars?” synthesized for the DoCoMoMo Journal some of his groundbreaking findings on these pioneers of the British Modern Movement. “Space, Light and Form” is an extract of the introduction to the 2000 edition of his famed book A Visual History of 20th Century Architecture, originally published in 1972. To my mind, this last volume is a fundamental piece of his work, where, in a succinct way, he puts forward his main concepts on the architecture of the last century.

A visual and academic approach to theatre architecture was formulated in “Theatre Spaces and Performances,” written in 1989 and published here as a facsimile. Furthermore, in a certain way the facsimile of “Design Considerations in British Cinemas during the Thirties,” published in 1969 as part of a large book on cinemas, shares with the former a diligent and meticulous approach to the theme; both are accompanied by interesting findings in the field of images of these singular places, representative of the twentieth century.

In other cases, Dennis Sharp’s critical eye, as well as his meticulous and creative writing, pierces through the analysis of architects with whom he shares time and friendship. One example of this is “Dennis Sharp Interviews Bruce Goff,” an American designer who has not had the recognition he deserves. On the other hand, we rightly find two obituaries on architects he had the opportunity to know closely: “Kisho Kurokawa: 1934–2007,” on whom he wrote a comprehensive book in 1998, and particularly “Bruno Zevi: 1918–2000,” with whom he shared the creation of the CICA in 1979. On a personal note, I had the privilege to participate in this event, and I had the opportunity to engage in a fruitful friendship with our generous author.

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Regarding Sharp’s expertise as a historian, it allowed him to work with ease and sophistication in finding new data to carry out a careful and in-depth analysis of the past. Such is the case of “Macintosh and Muthesius”; because the latter was a follower of the ideas of the former, it provided the article with a profound approach. As for “Paul Scheerbart’s Glass World,” Sharp helps us discover a philosopher and a poet, deeply interested in the work of Bruno Taut, author of the famed Glass Pavilion, and a most interesting link between literature and architecture. With other articles he moved toward more complex themes, with a wider theoretical scope, as in the facsimile “The Aesthetics of Expressionist Architecture”; it is the conclusion of his 1966 book on this subject, in which he offers a profound insight into this less known architectural trend.

The career of Dennis Sharp was also marked by constant activity both in the realm of architecture and its conservation and in the academic field, where he was a prolific author and renowned professor. First, there is the article “Another One Bites the Dust: The Greenside Case,” showcasing the fervent defender of the modern heritage as he stages his beliefs and his concerns. Second, “Culture, Form and the Architect: Two Experiments in Community Living” as well as “Utopian Ideals and the Complexity of the Modern City” represent his activities as a lecturer and speaker in many international forums. He presented these papers, which dealt with urbanism and living in the city, in Nairobi, Kenya (October 1981), and in the WACA Annual Conference in Hangzhou, China (November 2006).

A particular case in this book is the reproduction of seven magazine covers of the Architectural Association Quarterly(AAQ), along with seven “Commentary” pieces that he wrote as the Editor. Here we find short and straightforward texts that show the famed editor and his precise and sharp writing, with a deep engagement with the art of architecture, urbanism, and design, in all its expressions. In sum, Sharp’s constant presence in the different fields of world architecture and his affable and generous personality, invariably sustained by rectitude and a passionate defense of twentieth-century heritage, have made his absence noticeable, for his colleagues as well as his numerous readers.

A good number of examples of notable architectural writings are contained in this simple yet powerful red book. Red is the line that links the very different chapters, emphasizing the unity in the diversity of texts and presentations. As a conclusion, we may borrow from his own last words in Sharp Words, which express so well his personal endeavors: “I have tried in my talk today to stress matters of difference as well as the connections we enjoy globally through the rooted knowledge and dichotomous ideas behind the modernist city, and I have sought to explore those differences.Vive les différences!”

Indeed, this is a different and essential book.

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Sharp Words
Selected Essays of Dennis Sharp

With an Introduction by Paul Finch
Architectural Association, 2012
160 pages
$40 (paper)

Available at Perimeter Books


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