Combining brutality and breezy optimism, the British architect Peter Womersley brought a purist’s beauty to small-town projects in the 60s and 70s. Now his virtuosic talents are being rediscovered.
It’s fair to say that Gala Fairydean Rovers, of the Ferrari Packaging Lowland League, is not one of the glamour clubs of British football. To its possibly bemused pride, however, the club has a grandstand, a miraculous work of concrete origami, which for force of constructional imagination and for architectural intelligence per cubic metre is hard to beat. While its levitating prisms anticipate by decades the work of Zaha Hadid, it has a taut to-the-point-ness that has never been bettered. As if to give a public demonstration of dimensions numbers 1 to 3, it is equally virtuosic in line, surface and mass.
Today it is clogged with alterations, so to appreciate its original purity it helps to look at the photographs taken in 1963, when it was new. One of these also shows the E-type Jaguar of its architect, Peter Womersley, though being black-and-white it doesn’t show that the car was gold. The Jag must have been a sight, amid the ancient rural beauty of the Scottish Borders, but then so were Womersley’s buildings. Rarely has there been a more unlikely setting for cutting-edge architecture than Melrose, Galashiels, Selkirk and other small towns thereabouts.
Womersley (1923-93) was, quite simply, one of the best British architects of the 20th century, and until recently one of the most overlooked. His buildings are adventurous but poised; lucid, brave in conception and considered in their detail. He knew how to be elegant in a classical modern way but also how to play with a mannerism – a strange window rhythm, an imbalance in the structure, a stretched proportion, an ambiguous material – so as to achieve a greater composure than if he had played only by the rules. Rebecca Wober, an Edinburgh-based architect who has done much to unearth his life and work, says he made “spaces that just sing”. […]