On Intricacy

by
David Knight

A review of ‘On Intricacy: The Work of John Meunier Architect’ for Architecture Today

In December 2018 our practice was working in South Cambridgeshire working on design guidance for two villages. During this process I had seen references to a ‘special’ 20th century house nearby by the architect John Meunier, and so after the next site visit I hurried up a rural footpath six miles west of Cambridge in search of the house.The path quickly led to a mature, slightly ragged orchard on a south-facing slope, at the high end of which lay a fletton-brick single-storey house which somehow commanded the landscape whilst also being grounded in it.

This was the house that Meunier built for himself and his family between 1963 and 1965. On that day in 2018 it was extremely beautiful: highly composed and proportioned but also somehow relaxed, comfortable, everyday. I googled, and I found some plans in a 1968 Architectural Review, and a few articles about the Burrell Collection (designed by Meunier with Barry Gasson and Brit Andresen) and controversial proposals for its refurbishment. Knowing of the Burrell as beguiling and difficult-to-categorise, but never having heard Meunier’s name before, it suddenly felt like some threads of recent architectural history were coming into focus. Now, with the publication of On Intricacy (Canalside Press, 2020), a new book by and about Meunier and edited by Patrick Lynch, with contributions from Simon Henley and David Grandorge, this body of work can be properly appreciated.

There are lots of architectural monographs which feel slightly too distant from their subject, often when the subject is dead or has good lawyers. And there are lots which are sponsored by their subject and therefore too close. What we have here, instead, is a group of current practitioners compiling an affectionate but critically rigorous work of recovery of a career that has achieved great things but often very quietly. The book gives voice to a compelling body of built work, a long career as academic and teacher, and to the theories that hold those things together, expressed in the architect’s words but also through thoughtful essays by others This is what makes On Intricacy an unusually emotive and special architectural book; it has been made as a conversation between Meunier (now 84 years old) and a group of practising architects of a subsequent generation, all of whom are concerned with advancing architectural positions and ethics in the present. For this reason it is very much not a historical document, instead having the energy of a polemic. 

The polemic is about ‘intricacy’, which in Meunier and his collaborators’ hands is a development of ‘complexity’ that is interested in scale, culture, narrative, in the relation between building and city, and between architect and client. It’s a very ‘built’, tangible architectural idea, one that grew out of designing, building and encountering buildings. ‘Good architecture tells stories’, writes Meunier; my two favourite stories here were about the difficulty of extending the Meunier House having built and lived in it, and about finding a way of building a lightweight glazed pavilion for the University of Essex by using windows as structural components, with necessary extra bracing provided by some external bench seating. Meunier also can’t help pointing out that the flashy red Morgan in the photos was his collaborator Gasson’s car, whilst his own Ford Anglia was not in shot. But the book is full of such combinations of theory, built work and life that collectively add up to a work of generosity and a sense of ideas and ethics being passed on. There should be a lot more architectural publishing like this, products of genuine friendship and association that contribute something definite – and alive – to architectural history.

Read the article in Architecture Today.

DK-CM_On Intricacy_Essay_David Knight
DK-CM_On Intricacy_Essay_David Knight
Burrell Collection (photo: Tom Lee)
DK-CM_On Intricacy_Essay_David Knight
Meunier House (photo: David Grandorge)