(Paris 1928 – London 2018)
A pleasant summer afternoon in London, some six years ago. Coffee with Mr Sherban Cantacuzino, the Romanian-born British architecture historian and critic, at Pâtisserie Valérie in Marylebone Highstreet. He liked the French touch of the place, and was himself born in Paris in 1928. “Matila Ghyka used to invite me here,” he said. Ghyka (1881-1965), a Romanian diplomat and prolific aesthetician during the two world wars (his writings inspired Le Corbusier to conceive his Modulor), was a distant uncle and mentor to Cantacuzino – as he had been to Sherban’s own father George Cantacuzino (1899-1960), the doyen of the moderate Romanian Modernism.
Together with his mother Sanda, Sherban Cantacuzino settled in Britain in 1939, his sister Marie-Lyse following suit in 1940. They were meant to return to their father in Romania after the war. Alas, due to Fascism and Communism they never did.
Educated first at Winchester College, and then at Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, Sherban Cantacuzino practised as an architect, wrote on architecture, and lectured at the University of Canterbury before becoming Executive Editor of the Architectural Review (1973-1979) and Secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC), London (1979-1994).
In 1976, Gordon Graham, then RIBA president elect, dubbed him the “very best critic and one of the country’s finest speakers about architecture.” Some twenty years later “Richard MacCormac pointed out that it was under Cantacuzino’s secretaryship that the RFAC won its reputation for integrity and strength.” Lasting testimony to the latter is Cantacuzino’s publication What makes a good building? An inquiry by the Royal Fine Art Commission (London, 1994). In 2018, Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, recommended this very book as first title of the reading list in his essay addressed to young architects: “The book What makes a good building? by former RFAC secretary Sherban Cantacuzino has not been bettered since in answering the question posed by its title. It avoids subjective judgment: to say that a building is good is not the same as saying ‘I like it’.”
Cantacuzino was elected a member of the Comité International des Critiques d´Architecture (CICA) and, for a couple of years, member of the RIBA advisory board for the election of the Royal Gold Medallist, the greatest British honor in architecture – alongside Ada Louise Huxtable and Kenneth Frampton. His professional network included other colleagues and friends, especially from Britain and Romania, such as Alexandru Beldiman, Peter Blundell Jones, Kenneth Browne, Mariana Celac, Charles Correa, Peter Derer, Philip Dowson, Louisa Hutton, Matei Lykiardopol, Sir Richard MacCormack, Virgil Onofrei, Radu Patrulius, Joseph Rykwert, Dennis Sharp, Gavin Stamp, Sir James Stirling, Şerban Sturdza, and Ana Maria Zahariade.
Cantacuzino was a true scholar, radiating a natural authority based on solid and thorough knowledge and critical reflection, yet modest and easy accessible – the very opposite of today´s fashionable star-like attitude of some critics and theorists. His private architecture library is impressive not only by its sheer size, but also by the variety of topics and periods covered, historic and contemporary – and by the books in different languages: English, Romanian, French, German, Italian, and Latin.
His own writings include Modern Houses of the World (London / New York, 1964); Great Modern Architecture (London / New York, 1966); European Domestic Architecture: Its development since early times (London / New York, 1969); Canterbury (London, 1970); Isfahan (with Kenneth Browne, a special issue of Architectural Review, London, 1976); Wells Coates (London, 1978); Charles Correa (Singapore, 1984); Architecture in continuity. Building in the Islamic world today. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture (New York, 1985). Of his numerous articles, book introductions and speeches, his address at the opening of the 1974 RIBA exhibition on Carlo Scarpa is one of the most prominent: Carlo Scarpa, architetto poeta. What is more, Cantacuzino was one of the first critics to have written on the reuse of old buildings: Architectural Conservation in Europe (London, 1975); New Uses for Old Buildings (London, 1975); Saving Old Buildings (with Susan Brandt, London, 1980); Re/Architecture. Old Buildings/New Uses (London, 1989).
He was a member of prestigious award juries and panels such as the Aga Khan Foundation, UNESCO, ICOMOS and ICOMOS-UK (of which he was President-Emeritus). As rapporteur general of UNESCO he was, for instance, instrumental in accepting two projects on the UNESCO World Heritage List: the reconstruction of the city of Le Havre by French architect Auguste Perret, and the restoring of eight vernacular wooden churches in North-Western Romania (Maramureş). For after the fall of Communism he devoted the best part of his professional energies to saving heritage of Central and Eastern European countries, especially in Croatia and Romania. Cantacuzino was trustee of the International Trust for Croatian Monuments since its initiation in 1991. To Romania he first returned briefly in 1971, but after 1989 he regularly visited the country of his origin. He was then elected Honorary Member of the Union of Romanian Architects and of the Commission for Historic Monuments and Sites, and Honorary Professor of the University of Architecture and Urbanism “Ion Mincu” in Bucharest. Finally, he was co-founder and the first President of Pro Patrimonio, The National Trust of Romania.
In honor of his architectural and cultural commitment he received CBE (Commander of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II in 1988, and, for his contribution to saving the heritage of Romania, the European Heritage Award in 2008.
A true gentleman, his character was an impressive fusion of what one might call British reservedness and Romanian warm-heartedness, imbued with astuteness, intellectual integrity, method and wit. Here Derek Patmore’s account of his 1939 meeting with Armand Călinescu, then Romanian Minister for the Interior, comes into one’s mind: “His brain is one of the most subtle and brilliant that I have ever encountered. Byzantine in its complexity and swiftness of thinking, it must baffle many a […] diplomat […]. And yet […] [he] is orderly and systematic in his thinking.” Conversations with Sherban Cantacuzino were precious moments, delightful and enlightening – and an acoustic pleasure too, thanks to his “elegant David Nivenesque swift style,” as Kersten Rattenbury put it in his review of Cantacuzino’s talk at the opening of the exhibition Romania in the 1930s: Architecture and Modernity at the RIBA Architecture gallery in 1997. That exhibition included works by his father, known primarily by few Romanian scholars and architects, and Sherban Cantacuzino always took a vivid interest in reassessing him. So back in 2005, when I started my PhD thesis on George Cantacuzino’s body of work, we met and became friends.
Like his father, Sherban Cantacuzino had a strong sense of history and continuity, especially with respect to quality – or, in the words of Saint Paul: “Omnia autem probate! Quod bonum est, tenete!” From this attitude he certainly drew a sense of responsibility. Based in London, he became one of the finest, uncontested and most influential inofficial cultural ambassadors of Romanian culture during the last three decades. Again like his father George, he was both a cosmopolitan and a patriot: a true and lasting model.
Dr. Dan Teodorovici (*1972) is an architect, architectural historian and senior researcher at the Institute of Urban Planning at the University of Stuttgart, where he was awarded summa cum laude for his 2010 PhD thesis on the work of George Cantacuzino (1899-1960). Based on this study, he conceived a travelling exhibition and monograph, George Matei Cantacuzino – a hybrid modernist (Wasmuth, 2014). Sherban Cantacuzino´s addresses at the exhibition openings in Stuttgart (2012), Munich (2012), Karlsruhe (2013), London (2014), Berlin (2015), and Weimar (2016) were outstanding. He also contributed the foreword to the Romanian edition of the monograph (Bucharest, 2016).