Caruso St John Collected Works: Volume 1, 1990 – 2005 – Review

Sofie De Caigny

Collected Works opens with a lecture that Adam Caruso and Peter St John gave at the Architecture Foundation in London, in 1998. The text sets the tone of the publication. As a reader, one is invited to enter the universe of two architects who are searching for their position in the late 1990s architectural scene. They take a critical stance towards the paradigm of the time, in which architecture and economy became deeply entangled, and where architecture followed strategies of demolition and expansion, exploiting materials, energies, human resources, and remote urban areas. Against this dictatorial imposition of an obsession with the new, Caruso St John stands with humble strategies of densification of existing settlements, an empathetic engagement with artefacts, their form and texture: the embeddedness in history and landscape. In this first volume of Collected Works, the reader is offered a lens through which Caruso St John shows how broken cities unveil qualities if you look in a specific manner, carefully and attentively. 

Warehouse, Clerkenwell, London, c.1990. Caruso St John.

With this attention to context, material culture, and a longue durée, Caruso St John inscribes itself in an arrière-garde present in contemporaneous Swiss-German architecture, in the work of architects like Herzog & de Meuron and Diener and Diener. There is a similar interest in craftsmanship, context, historical layers, and building a network in which architecture stands alongside contemporary art, silently commenting on societal evolutions. The links between Caruso St John and these Swiss architects will become more obvious in the later works of Caruso St John. In this volume on the first phase of the office’s existence, the reader is invited through associations to imagine future entanglements between various Western European architectural cultures. For myself, similarities with the Flanders’ scene are obvious but not yet explicit in the early works this publication puts emphasis on. 

Caruso St John, Studio House, Swan Yard, London, 1993–1994. Photo by Hélène Binet.
Caruso St John, Studio House, Swan Yard, London, 1993–1994. Photo by Hélène Binet.

Instead of using the perspective of the all-knowing narrator capable of interpreting retroactively and making these links explicit, the book chooses to submerge the reader into the cultural sphere of the end of the 20th century. It does so by interweaving different ingredients. First there are critical architectural texts on the work of Caruso St John by contemporaries in the years 1990 and 2000. By republishing original texts, the publication also becomes a source for studying the different nuclei of cultural resistance against the dominating architectural paradigm of the time. These republications of reflections on the work of Caruso St John are alternated with representations of the work of the office in the form of photos of the projects, models, and drawings. A third type of content consists of texts and art that inspired the work of Caruso St John or that the practice strongly relates to. Lastly, contemporary lectures, writings and conversations by the architects are woven into the chapters of this volume. 

Caruso St John, New Art Gallery Walsall, 1995–2000. Photo by Hélène Binet.

The playful rhythm between these different components is experienced as a gesture that reveals an intellectual, artistic, and social universe alive during these last decades of the 20th century. By doing so, the publication is about so much more than the architecture of an emerging office. It is a book about an engagement with the city and about finding inspiration in unintended beauty, about an attitude of modesty towards the given layers of the city, and the daily lives of people. At the same time the publication generously gives an insight into friendships with and the inspiration that comes from like-minded writers, designers, filmmakers, and artists. 

The richness of what one can read and visually enjoy convincingly presents the office of Caruso St John as a cultural practice, with the capacity to be reflective and critical. At the same time, the publication represents the modes of working in the office, where many projects run in parallel, influencing each other as conversing brothers and sisters. By not positioning the projects in a strict chronological or thematic order, the threads and overlaps unfold themselves in an intuitive way.


Caruso St John Collected Works: Volume 1 1990–2005 is published by MACK. Copies of the book can be purchased here.

Sofie De Caigny is director of the Flanders Architecture Institute and Lecturer in Architectural Critique at the Faculty of Design Sciences, University of Antwerp.