When we think of the conception and development of the Royal College of Physicians' (RCP) building in Regent’s Park many of us will picture two learned and important men at the centre of events: eminent physician, and president of the college, Lord Robert Platt (1900–1978), and famous, brutalist architect, Sir Denys Lasdun (1914–2001).
Described respectively in their obituaries as, ‘a widely respected public figure’, and ‘of upright carriage, sculpted head and commanding eyes’, both were war veterans and leaders who had reached the very top of their fiercely competitive professions. However, the oral history recordings in the RCP archives reveal a delightfully human side of both men which it seems fitting to air on London Open House weekend.
In his interview, recorded with former Harveian librarian Charles Newman in 1969, you can hear Robert Platt giggling and stirring his tea as he relates how the, apparently very attractive, Canadian high commissioner called on him to ask whether the RCP might be persuaded to move from their Trafalgar Square headquarters:
Very early in my time the High Commissioner for Canada, The Honourable George Drew, known to his contemporaries as Gorgeous George, and still a very fine figure of a man … at the age that he was then, about sixty I suppose … came to call on me to see if the college would move. And I remember sitting with him in the Censor’s Room over- looking Trafalgar Square, and saying, … well … yes I think we might move if we had the opportunity of doing so, and saying the we should of course have to find a site before we can agree at all to handing the college over to Canada House and also that if we did move then we should take the panelling with us.
Sir Denys Lasdun reveals an equally human side when he talks of the fear he felt on attending his first meeting of comitia in Trafalgar Square after securing the contract:
Talking of being frightened … Robert Platt asked me to put myself in the gallery of the library in Smirk’s building (in Trafalgar Square) and attend the comitia. So I stood alone in the gallery looking down on these eminent physicians and after about 25 minutes I absolutely panicked, left, and wandered around Trafalgar Square. I panicked because I didn’t really see, quite, how modern architecture and those eminent physicians would ever … there’s no doubt in my mind, in retrospect, with one or two notable exceptions, that nobody … particularly likes modern architecture, and that modern architecture would be the last thing they would want for their new college.
After about 25 minutes I absolutely panicked, left, and wandered around Trafalgar Square
Lasdun wasn’t the only one feeling anxious. He also recalls Sir Charles Dodds, president in 1964 when the Queen came to open the new building, ‘shaking and trembling with nerves’ on the occasion, and the very kind letter that Dodds, a self-confessed opponent of modern architecture, wrote to him to say how he had been won round by Lasdun’s vision. This letter became one of his treasured possessions.
Although Lasdun mentions many of those that worked with him on the design of the building, there is no doubt that the closest bond he developed was with Robert Platt. He describes their friendship as ‘quite exceptional’, and talks of the ‘immense courage’ that Platt displayed in seeing through the project in the face of significant unease. Platt also speaks of Lasdun with affection, respect and, again, humour, recalling an exchange they had some months after the opening:
I said to him [Lasdun] one day, when we’d been in sometime, I said to him ‘What I like about your building is I keep finding things that are unexpected to me that I haven’t found before’, and he said ‘So do I!’ [laughs]
London Open House
Through Open House members of the public are given a chance to peep behind the façade of grand, exclusive buildings and may find that their elegant and inspiring exteriors hide a quirky or unexpected element of their interior. Denys Lasdun’s RCP building on Regent’s Park will be open from 9.30am to 5pm on Sunday 17 September as part of the Open House weekend, and can explore all areas of Lasdun's building, including the wood panelling of the Censors Room.
Sarah Lowry, oral history project officer
- Forty modern oral history interviews from the ‘Voices of medicine’ project are available via the RCP library catalogue.