Obituary: John Smith
Saturday 20 June 1998
The AA is an extraordinary institution, founded in 1847 by students to educate themselves. Since 1919 it has been based in Bedford Square, and has depended for its funding largely on the fees of its students. It has had an enormous influence on British architecture.
A quiet, modest, humorous man, Smith was part of that socialist and optimistic generation educated immediately after the Second World War. He studied (with a short interruption for National Service in Italy) at the AA for five years. After graduating in 1952 he began work with ACP, the Architects' Collaborative Partnership, with whom later - just before he began practice on his own account in 1960 - he was appointed an associate partner. He worked mainly on the Hertfordshire Schools programme.
As a practising architect, Smith ran a general practice. He carried out small jobs, including youth clubs in Hertfordshire and the Stowe Club for Boys (1968) in Paddington, London, perhaps his best-known building. Both he and his partner David Braithwaite became interested in "pop" architecture and social buildings and initiated a series of books, Excursions into Architecture, with the publisher Hugh Evelyn. Their first was Fairground Architecture (1968) followed soon after by my own Picture Palace (1969). He also designed a Hall of Mirrors for Madame Tussaud's.
A keen thespian, Smith worked tirelessly as a student for the Section AA Theatre Group annual pantos and carnivals (the latter architecture's equivalent to the Chelsea Arts Ball). He served as AA Student Union chairman and even found time to attend a CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) Summer School in Venice. There he came face to face with modernist architects determined to move architectural education away from the traditional Beaux Arts system to a more democratic and open one.
In Britain the AA had long been the major beneficiary of this kind of reform. It was quick to recognise and promote modernism; in the 1930s Walter Gropius spoke here about the Bauhaus drawing style. Since then the modernist architectural estabishment in England has been the AA, which was also responsible for introducing a teaching system broken down into units students can choose from - a practice which is now widespread.
Smith, as the AA's first two-term president, was one of those - at the time of its 125th anniversary - who sought ways to sustain the AA's unique unit teaching system and to maintain its independent role. He encouraged the creation of a new executive role for a chairman to replace the previously divided roles of head of school and AA director.
When he became President of Council in 1971, however, he was faced with a number of dilemmas. Margaret Thatcher's educational policies had ruled out mandatory grants for AA students; the school itself was becoming penniless; and proposals were being considered for its closure.
Smith and others produced an Independence Working Party Report and were determined to maintain the AA's independent status at all costs. The school community - students and teachers - concurred. The council agreed to create a new executive AA Chairperson, a position to be filled through election by the AA student body.
After great drama and a period of indecision, the position was filled by an ex-Dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. The new chairman's appearance at the crisis-ridden scene even before a contract was signed put Smith under great stress. With due prescience he warned the AA about "an autocrat at its breakfast table" but with fairly typical indecision, the council approved the chairman's appointment.
With others he was soon marginalised by the very autocrat of which he had warned. The AA Council was similarly sidelined. This was not, however, before Smith had successfully led the AA and eventually the RIBA and ARCUK to sever links with South Africa over Apartheid, despite the fact that both institutions had many South African members and students.
Independently, Smith did wonderful line drawings for the national and professional press, including the Observer and House and Garden, and carried out a series of commissions on architectural education throughout Britain for the technical press. He also reported back to various bodies, including ARCUK (for whom he acted as AA nominee from the Sixties onwards), with his tough findings usually reflecting on the independent status of the AA and the motivation it provided for self-education and easy reform.
After editing the AA Journal from 1963 to 1965 he continued as editorial chairman until 1982. During this time, with the help of his skilful negotiations, it evolved into a new international British journal of architecture, AA Quarterly. Although he was never able to complete a book himself (he had begun a biography of the notable but neglected Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91), who was responsible for London's foul water drainage system) he was a patient, fastidious and gifted editor.
He moved back to Kent in the late 1970s where he enjoyed county cricket and taught new generations of architectural students at the Canterbury School of Architecture until he was reluctantly forced by age and ill- health to retire.
John Smith, architect, editor and teacher: born Beckenham, Kent 10 November 1926; President, Architectural Association 1971-73; died Canterbury 28 April 1998.
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