A. STUART GRAY was one of the most prominent architects for Britain's National Health Service. Yet Watkins Gray, the practice he captained during the "heroic" period of NHS hospital building in the 1960s, was very different to the one which in 1939 had won the competition for the new St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner in London. It is testimony to Gray's managerial skill and commercial acumen that Watkins Gray continued to flourish within the climate of architectural modernism in post-war Britain, a period far removed from the Edwardian traditionalism of the 1930s.

Gray's ascent of the architectural profession had been rapid. Born in 1905, he studied at both the Central School of Arts & Crafts (from 1920) and the Royal Academy Schools (1928-34). It was at these two institutions that his personal architectural repertoire developed, evincing both the Arts & Crafts influences of William Lethaby's Central School and the classical splendour of Sir Edwin Lutyens's architecture at the RA. His talent was acknowledged by numerous medals and prizes won at the RA. Tellingly, his successes were achieved in competitions set by the pompier Edwardian architects - William Curtis Green, Sir John Burnet, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Edwin Lutyens - and were rewarded with travelling studentships to Italy, to examine at first hand the architecture of the classical and Renaissance world.

However the inter-war years also witnessed a period of intense architectural change, and Gray found himself confronting the problems of designing for modern building types and the emerging debate around modern architectural design. He worked on the new cinemas which his subsequent business partner, William H. Watkins (1878-1964), was prodigiously building across the West Country, and also, briefly, on department store design in Burnet & Tait's office at Selfridge's in London. A period with the major inter-war practice of Adams Holden & Pearson brought Gray into contact with modern hospital design, working with Lionel Pearson on London's new Westminster Hospital (completed 1938).

Recognising Gray's skill, Watkins poached him back to open a London office. The practice's efforts turned to competitions, and in 1939 Gray won first prize for his proposals for the new St George's Hospital. The design portrayed a grand, dignified building, in command of its prominent site and steeped in a calm, stripped-down classicism, topped with pavilions suggestive of Gray's lasting admiration for Lutyens. The design was criticised by the architectural modernists who proposed sleek, unadorned, glazed slab- blocks for the site.

Yet Gray had little cause to worry about such criticisms: even though the project was curtailed with the onset of war the publicity surrounding it caught the attention of - amongst others - the visiting Governor of Trinidad, who commissioned Watkins and Gray to work on a new hospital in the Caribbean.

Gray was made a partner in Watkins's firm, and the practice rapidly expanded on hotel, bank, hospital and commercial commissions in Barbados, Jamaica, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Hospital design constituted a major share of Watkins Gray's work, in Britain or abroad. It was unsurprising, then, that the firm was to play a major role in British hospital schemes under the new National Health Service. Gray's design for the New Surgical Block at Guy's Hospital, London (1955-61) was one of the first major post-war hospital projects completed in Britain, and was welcomed enthusiastically by the press: "The New Guy's House, near London Bridge, is the `last word' in modern surgical science," declared the Illustrated London News.

Gray's tower-block design demonstrated a reticent architectural modernism, and the scheme was to be one of the last hospital projects on which he played a direct design role. None the less under Gray's stewardship the practice went from strength to strength designing bold modern buildings at three major London teaching hospitals in the 1960s (Guy's Tower, the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, and St George's Hospital, Tooting) whilst also undertaking major hospital projects in Manchester, Bristol, Exeter and Bradford. Gray himself continued to lecture on hospital design and publish in the technical press.

His involvement with the firm he nurtured lessened upon his retirement in 1968, and his attentions shifted once more to the Edwardian period, culminating in his encyclopaedic Edwardian Architecture (1985).

Undaunted by his advancing years, he continued to publish into his late eighties, jointly authoring two books, Fanlights (1990) and Hampstead Garden Suburb (1992). His astounding recollection of biographical and architectural detail remained undiminished, as did his appetite for the Hampstead "suburb" where he lived. And it was with evident delight that he continued until recently to discuss with authority and conviction the design and detailing of the picturesque cottage in which he lived, and the qualities of the muscular Lutyens buildings in the North Square nearby.

Alexander Stuart Gray, architect: born Gravesend, Kent 15 July 1905; married 1932 Avis Radmore (died 1980; one son, two daughters); died London 20 February 1998.

Comments