David Dunster 1945 – 2019

Words:
Simon Allford

Iconoclastic teacher, critic and writer who sent a conveyor belt of talent to many top practices and helped forge the success of AHMM

David Dunster was an influential teacher, inspiring critic and an important voice in architecture. His sharp intellect, wit and challenging style influenced the thinking of a generation of students, many of whom are now leading teachers and architects. 

David moved from Kent to London to study architecture at the Bartlett, UCL. Despite a fascination with Chicago, where he lived as a young architect, and Liverpool, where he was professor of architecture from 1995 until retiring in 2010, London remained his spiritual home. 

Acutely aware of the zeitgeist, he had the confidence to teach whole years together when the fashion, then as now, was for the studio system. My partners and I first met him at The Bartlett in the early 1980s where he ran the diploma. He had already established his reputation at Kingston Polytechnic, supplying talent to many offices including that of Jim Stirling, to where he sent the future founders of Birds Portchmouth Russum. 

David was supremely well read, personally connected to the likes of Rossi, Venturi, Stern, Tafuri and a host of French intellectuals. An iconoclast, he corrected the architectural discussion in London which was at a low in the 1980s, by introducing different thoughts from around the world. Importantly, he also did this at the RIBA where the lecture series he invented filled the Florence Hall.

Robust, argumentative, yet with a supremely generous mind, he was interested in people (and Freud) – those who made architecture and also those who sometimes suffered at the receiving end of it. A committed socialist, he was deeply suspicious of elites who knew better.

As a historian he drafted his book on Chicago, at least in conversation, many times, but never published it. I used to think that was because it meant too much to him, but have concluded it was because his entire teaching career was a study and critique of the same interplay between urban planning, infrastructure and architecture. 

AHMM was forged under David’s eye. He was pleased with the idea (if not the architecture) of our Fifth Man Diploma. He most enjoyed that the Bartlett’s marking system could not cope with collaboration. This bureaucratic absurdity inspired him the following year to run the entire diploma as a collaborative urban project at King’s Cross and at scale, with all 30 students assembling and critiquing the new city they were making with their own work.

His two Key Buildings of the 20th Century volumes were very David: the erudition was in the selection, the critique was concision itself and the focus was on the drawings in plans, elevation and sections only; and all to the same scale. David had made up his mind but left it to those on the receiving end to make up theirs.

The trouble with this scheme’, he began, ‘is that it’s boring.

David was a great tutor of architects because he was a brilliant formal critic of architecture as form and as idea. He saw what could be, as well as what was. He saw a better potential. He saw beyond the horizon. 

He also knew how to provoke students to think critically about their own work. I remember presenting my own Armée du Salut, but on Clerkenwell Road. I showed only plan and section as I had destroyed my perspective, which revealed that I had put the slab in the ‘obviously correct’ place in the street’s missing tooth. Which of course was the wrong place. 

‘The trouble with this scheme’, he began, ‘is that it’s boring’. He paused to drink some more red wine, puff on his Rio 6 cigar and smile kindly at my dismay.
‘But, in my view’, he went on, ‘boring is good! The best architecture is terribly boring’. There was a pause as my spirits rose. Then: ‘The trouble is, it is not boring enough!’

David was memorable and special. Over the following four decades, by accident and design, all those who passed through his school of life and architecture continued to choose to cross paths with him, his family and each other.

I last saw him a few months ago at WAF Amsterdam. I was presenting a scheme that has won many awards but, more importantly, plaudits from the three people whose opinions I really value. As jury chair he smiled, left his fellow jurors to probe in the dark and made an incisive yet ambiguous remark. As I expected, the scheme was unplaced. 

He is survived by his wife Charlotte Myhrum and their son Arthur Dunster. 

 

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