Letter: Change as an integral part of architecture

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Sir: The consent given to Sir Norman Foster's proposals for altering the Mendelsohn and Chermayeff 'Cohen' house in Chelsea (Architecture, 10 February) raises questions of principle about the listing and preservation of architecture we call Modern. Many other examples of such buildings will require change if they are to live on. The Cohen house (1936) poses particular difficulties, however, for its ethos had nothing to do with the classic formalism on which the International Style was based.

The Grade II-starred listing is justified (the star for the interior). Erich Mendelsohn's early work was in perfect accord with the spirit of freedom that underlay the rejection of revivalism, but he did not serve that spirit through the employment of an aesthetic derived from the image of machines. For him, the new architecture was about its use - in the broadest sense - and, consequently, the inside and outside of a house arose naturally, and together, from a single concept about life.

Preservationists who accept internal changes to the Cohen house, provided its facades remain intact, do not take this factor into account. The long-standing owners of this little masterpiece have aged, and for that reason the house needs changing. This is part of a reality that Mendelsohn would have accepted.

The Cohen house is the best preserved of three buildings that the Mendelsohn and Chermayeff practice left us, yet there is irony in the aesthetes' preference that no changes should be made. Erich Mendelsohn was a Futurist at heart - a member of a movement that would have severed connections with the past by blowing up museums.

But now, those shackled by nostalgia would make a museum of the work of an architect who, 60 years ago, was a light of promise for a liberating notion of freedom.

Yours faithfully,


Professor of Architecture

and Urbanism

University of Bath


15 February