Obituary: Alfred Roth

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The Independent Culture
THE SWISS architect, artist and writer Alfred Roth was one of the last of the original generation of international modern architects closely associated with the Functionalist cause.

In 1927, he spent some time in Le Corbusier's atelier in Paris. There he worked on and wrote about the Le Corbusier villa and apartment blocks built that year for the Werkbund Exhibition on the Weissenhof, Stuttgart. The following year he went to Gothenburg in Sweden, where he designed a series of low-cost apartments in the modern style.

He commenced his own architectural practice in 1931 in Zurich where four years later he collaborated with Marcel Breuer, the former Bauhaus master, and his cousin Emil Roth (they practised as Alfred and Emil Roth) on the renowned Doldertal apartment blocks in Zurich, which were the epitome of the cubic Functionalist style: plain, flat-roofed, white buildings. He built his own house there in 1960, continuing the same tradition.

In the post-war period Roth worked closely with the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto whose work he had introduce to the Swiss public in an exhibition in Zurich in 1941. They collaborated on many projects, a fact acknowledged in the exhibition - commemorating the centenary of Aalto's birth - now showing at the Eidgenossiche Technische Hochschule, where Roth's archives are held.

His personal archive is extensive, containing material of a lifetime's practice as an architect as well as the records of the years he served as editor of the Swiss-based architectural magazine Werk (1943-56). The polemic he waged in Werk underlined his own interest in regional architecture and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, someone else he met, promoted and exhibited in Zurich.

Roth was concerned with the integration of the arts. He saw them best unified under the banner of a "Modern" architecture: "All my architectural endeavours and all my thinking are firmly based on the principles of . . . functional architecture," he wrote in 1980, although he warned that the most important aspect of Functionalism was its demand for "beauty, harmony, nobility, and inventiveness".

He was also a minor painter in his own right, following closely the De Stijl work of Max Bill and the Swiss/ German Konkreten artists from the mid- Twenties whose Constructivist paintings and three-dimensional artefacts introduced formal, grids, patterns, primary colours and geometrical shapes. In this kind of art - as in the rationalist architecture it paralleled - the artist determines everything mathematically.

Roth is probably best remembered in Britain for the excellent exhibition he curated at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1946 on Swiss architecture and planning and for his much admired books. He published The New Architecture, in 1939. In it, he featured the Boots Factory at Beeston in Nottinghamshire by Sir Owen Williams side by side with work by the second generation of Modern Movement masters, thus acknowledging the successful diaspora of the Functionalist idea. His book on the New School was issued in 1950 and his autobiography, Alfred Roth: Architekt der Kontinuitat in 1985. He was made an honorary member of the RIBA in 1948.

Alfred Roth was a generous man and widely admired locally as a Vermittler (or facilitator), bringing together people from many disciplines, encouraging writers and students to clarify their thoughts on art and architecture. He served as a professor of architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute from 1957 to 1971 and taught briefly at Harvard.

His own house and studio on the Doldertal estate have more recently become a place of pilgrimage for a whole new generation of architects. Touring the estate with a Swiss friend a few years ago, I rang his doorbell. He welcomed us and once inside I discovered one of my own books opened on his drawing board at the pages that featured his work!

Soon he was talking us through his work. He was still active as architect in his late eighties. We looked briefly at the drawings of his work on the Middle East, particularly his accomplished Sabbag Centre in Beirut (with Aalto). But it was his own house he was most proud of and he took us on a tour. He pointed out the many small Mondrian-like coloured drawings he had propped up all over the house - except in the rooms hired out to students.

Significantly, he had reduced his own living requirements to a camp bed in the living room and the use of the shared facilities. He lived out his Functionalist role to the end.

Alfred Roth, architect: born Wangen, Switzerland 21 May 1903; died Zurich 20 October 1998.

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