Obituary: Sir Alex Gordon

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The Independent Culture
ALEX GORDON was one of the most distinguished Welsh architects of the post-war period.

In a country then with only a few modern buildings of distinction, he began his career in 1948 after training at the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff and soon became known for the progressive style of his work. He was not particularly interested in developing a native version of contemporary architecture, nor in emulating the achievements of Scandinavian architects, and yet his buildings have a distinctive character which chimes nicely with the sites they occupy, so that they take their place unobtrusively in the urban landscape of Wales.

One of Gordon's most typical and visually satisfying creations is the Music Building at the University College, Cardiff, put up in 1971 on the northern perimeter of Cathays Park, and still one of the finest civic centres in Britain. It is in striking contrast to its red-brick neighbours, and acts as a foil to the Portland Stone grandeur of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings of the park. But the large sculpture by Barbara Hepworth which stands outside attracts far more attention.

The same blend of materials and concern for meticulous detail can be seen in the Students' Union and the nearby Sherman Theatre, which Gordon also designed. Completed in 1973, the union faces W.D. Caroe's splendid Great Court across Park Place and consists of a series of tiered balconies which take in, at the rear, the railway line which runs under the building. The theatre, in dark brown brick, seems to have no windows, but inside it is surprisingly roomy and airy.

Less pleasing perhaps, except to the taste of the ultra-modernist, is the headquarters of what was once the Wales Gas Board (and now British Gas) in Churchill Way in central Cardiff, which Gordon erected on an extremely cramped site in 1968. This office tower is an eight-storey glass box raised on stilts over a more traditional base at street-level. Yet it offended no one and has become something of a cherished landmark in a district which has few other points of reference, being largely taken up by terraces of solicitors' and estate agents' offices. Similarly, his 12-storey Post Office Telephone Exchange in Swansea, although it dwarfs the castle, forms an imposing feature which is an attractive addition to the architecture of a city centre virtually destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941.

The only unpopular building designed by Gordon is the five-storey rectangle situated behind the main block of what was once the Welsh Office in Cardiff. Overhanging massively at its tip and set on a steeply sloping plinth, it was described in the Architects' Journal as "a symbol of closed inaccessible government" which conveyed an impression of "bureaucracy under siege". The entire complex became part of the National Assembly earlier this year and can thus expect a quite different role from now on as an annexe of the new "open government" of Wales.

It seems that, when Gordon came to design the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend in 1981, he tried to make institutional architecture less formidable, choosing to build a series of pavilions under pitched roofs. The same attempt to soften the more brutal effects of modern architectural styles is to be seen in Transport House, the offices of the Transport and General Workers' Union at the junction of Cathedral Road and Cowbridge Road in Cardiff.

The most impressive of all Gordon's buildings is perhaps the Crown Court in St Helen's Road, opposite the Guildhall in Swansea. Formal, symmetrical and neoclassical, it has deep eaves supported on slender pillars, a broad, canted window bay over the cavernous entrance and a flight of wide steps. It is described in John Newman's The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan (1995) as "an essay in mannerist wit" in which the faceted shapes are used to confound expectations: the angles of the building are chamfered back and the oriel windows of the court-rooms at first-floor level are blind where they project but glazed where they recede. This is a building meant to inspire respect for the law but it also manages to intrigue the informed eye.

On a more intimate, almost domestic, scale is Gordon's Methodist chapel in Cyncoed, a leafy suburb of north Cardiff, again a box of glass and buff-coloured brick but none the less touching in its simplicity and elegance. This is the building which I always think is most like the man who designed it - modest, well-mannered and yet sure of itself and quietly assertive in its marrying of the devotional and the functional. His staff houses at Atlantic College at St Donat's in the Vale of Glamorgan, built with flat roofs and black brick and weatherboarding, and his St David's Lutheran Church in Fairwater, on the north-western side of Cardiff, also have this quality.

Born in Ayr in 1917, Gordon was brought up in Swansea and educated at the town's Grammar School, where he worked with Dylan Thomas on the school magazine. In 1935 he was articled to the Swansea Borough Architect and studied part-time to pass the RIBA Intermediate Examination as an external candidate. While still a student he won the Lord Mayor's competition for the design of Cardiff's street decorations in the year of the Coronation.

After war service with the Royal Engineers, during which he served in Northern Ireland and Palestine, he studied at the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff and, in 1948, became a partner of T. Alwyn Lloyd, one of only two practitioners who, before the war, had made important contributions to the development of thinking about the function of architecture in Wales.

Lloyd's small-scale buildings reflected his deep feeling for place, in both historical and environmental terms, as in the Garden Villages for which he was responsible in various parts of Wales. Something of Lloyd's feel for interior design and his attention to detail was passed on to his junior partner. Initially the practice worked on housing schemes for local authorities and the Forestry Commission, but Gordon's appointment as consultant architect to the Wales Gas Board in 1949 was to provide a secure base for work in the future.

After Lloyd's death in 1960, Gordon set up his own firm, Alex Gordon and Partners, of which he was head until his retirement in 1982 and then consultant until 1988. Before the onset of the Parkinson's disease and blindness which afflicted him in his last years, he was active on behalf of professional bodies both at home and abroad. He was a member of the Design Council, the British Councils, the Arts Council, the Royal Fine Art Commission and the University Grants Committee, and President of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1971 to 1973. He was a corresponding member of the Society of Mexican Architects and the Federation of Danish Architects, and served as President of the Comite de Liaison des Architectes du Marche Commun, and as a member of many consultative bodies. He was an honorary member of the Bund Deutscher Architecten and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. The University of Wales awarded him an honorary LLD in 1972.

One of the projects which gave Alex Gordon particular satisfaction was the completion by his old firm in 1993 of the final phase of the west wing of the National Museum of Wales, which now houses a magnificent gallery of modern art. He was passionately interested in painting and sculpture and took great pleasure in knowing that buildings of this calibre were at last possible in Wales. His private collection of modern art, which included works by Ben Nicholson, John Piper and Marc Chagall, was given to the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea.

Alex Gordon was unmarried and lived for many years at Llanblethian in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Meic Stephens

Alexander John Gordon, architect: born Ayr 25 February 1917; senior partner, Alex Gordon and Partners 1960-82; FRIBA 1962, PRIBA 1971-73; OBE 1967, CBE 1974; Kt 1988; died Saint Hilary, Vale of Glamorgan 23 July 1999.

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