Betty Cadbury-Brown

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The Independent Online

Elizabeth Romeyn Elwyn, architect: born New York 28 March 1922; married 1949 Bill Dale (marriage dissolved), 1953 Jim Cadbury-Brown; died Aldeburgh, Suffolk 17 March 2002.

The architect Betty Cadbury-Brown worked for most of her career with her husband H.T. (Jim) Cadbury-Brown, and her contribution to their buildings is only just beginning to be recognised, though her vivacity and zeal were loved and admired by all who knew her.

She was born Elizabeth Elwyn in Manhattan in 1920, and grew up in an intellectual, scientific milieu. Her father taught neuro-anatomy at Columbia University. When she was four, the family moved to Croton-on-Hudson, where she was sent to the progressive new Hessian Hills School by William Lescaze, who went on to build at Dartington Hall in Devon. In the 1930s, such a clean modern environment, complete with Breuer chairs for the children, was a rare experience.

Elwyn began reading English at Barnard College in New York, but found Beowulf stultifying: instead she was fired by the enthusiasm of her friends in the architecture school and switched courses. That Douglas Haskell, editor of Architectural Forum, was also a family friend confirms that the choice of career was a natural one to her intellectual background.

After qualifying, she worked in New York until a cousin's posting to Berlin in 1948 inspired her to tour Europe, with five suitcases and a tennis racket. In London she met and married an English constitutional lawyer, Bill Dale, and looked for a job. A friend was the cousin of Helena Rubinstein, who had commissioned a shop from Ernö Goldfinger; he had no work for her, though Elwyn spent a brief time unpaid in his office. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) claimed that, as an American and a woman, she would never get a job here.

But Jim Cadbury-Brown needed an assistant to work on the Festival of Britain planned for 1951; her first job was measuring the arches under Hungerford Bridge for the entrance to the Downstream section, and she recalled worrying that none was regular. Such a concern for accuracy was typical of the attention to detail she brought to all her subsequent work. Jim Cadbury-Brown recalls that she "drew like an angel". He considers that American architectural education was then much tougher than that in England, for it was based on learning by doing, and the attention to materials and finding the simplest, most natural solution became the basis of their work together.

Both believed that the Modern movement grew naturally out of the Arts and Crafts tradition, and both rejected the white concrete box as wholly unsuited to northern climates. In this their work developed the line taken by Goldfinger. Betty's first marriage broke up amicably and, although Jim had to be cited as co-respondent in the necessary divorce case, Bill Dale remained a good friend.

It is difficult to separate Betty Cadbury-Brown's work from that of her husband. Certainly the detailing of their buildings was by her, and she applied a strong spatial sense to interiors such as their lecture theatres at Essex University (1966-67). Their best-known building will be the Royal College of Art in London. The long, low Gulbenkian wing that faces the Royal Albert Hall is entirely her work, though her exhibition hall has been removed in a subsequent revamp.

Their own home at Aldeburgh in Suffolk with its beautiful, calm interior was also largely by her, lovingly detailed to the last tile, with ceiling-high doors (we're tall people, so we could do it, she explained), cupboards and carefully placed skylights where they were most needed over kitchen work surfaces, the bathroom and bedrooms.

As natural as her buildings was Betty Cadbury-Brown's warm, easy personality. She was always exuberant, funny and open. Her buildings will be her memorial, but I wish I had the recipe for Betty's famous whisky sours, so that I could properly toast her passing.

Elain Harwood