Eric Bedford

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The Independent Online

Eric Bedford, architect: born 23 August 1909; Chief Architect to the Ministry of Works 1950-70; CVO 1953; CB 1959; married 1938 Elsie Maynard Steel (died 1977; one daughter); died Worcester 28 July 2001.

The 1950s and 1960s are more often remembered for the building of high-rise commercial offices and local- authority flats than for great government works. That this was the case was due to a lack of long-term investment rather than ability, for Eric Bedford, who served as Chief Architect to the Ministry of Works between 1950 and 1970, was a committed believer in modern, functional design, technical innovation and a great supporter of young talent.

Eric Bedford was born near Halifax in 1909 and studied at Thornton Grammar School, Bradford, before serving articles with a Leicester firm of architects. In 1934 he won a national competition for a railway terminal, perhaps an early demonstration of his aptitude for the architecture of infrastructure.

Two years later he joined the Ministry of Works, and he spent the Second World War designing grain silos and communication centres. Buildings for agriculture, particularly the building of farmworkers' cottages to encourage men to stay on the land, is a little-explored sideline of Britain's war effort. Bedford's preference was for the functional over the glamorous, as is still demonstrated to train travellers by the gaunt – yet striking – grain silo built at Haughley Junction, outside Stowmarket, under his direction in 1954.

By then, Bedford had risen to the top, becoming at 41 the youngest Chief Architect the ministry had known. Some of his buildings were controversial, such as the replacement of Rendell's suspension bridge in St James's Park by a simple pre-stressed concrete structure, in 1956-57, and the large office buildings erected for government departments around Westminster in the 1960s. But under Bedford the Ministry of Works developed an exceptional technical expertise in matters such as pre-stressing. It was this that made possible its most famous achievement, the building of the Post Office Tower, now Telecom Tower.

The Post Office Tower was built as a centre of national and international telephone communication by ultra-high frequency (UHF) microwave transmission. As telephone use soared in the 1950s, it became impossible to provide adequate cable links in central London. Radio telephones using low frequencies were well understood, but the use of UHF was in its infancy, and its adoption placed the tower at the forefront of international design.

A site was chosen at the rear of the Museum Telephone Exchange, because this was already the focal point of London's telecommunications system and television cables network. The tower had to be exceptionally stable to maintain the accuracy of the narrow-beam transmitters. Its waves were relayed across Britain via a series of other masts, the nearest being at Harrow, all designed by the Ministry of Works – but its central location and particular elegance has made the London tower famous. The cylindrical shape reduced wind resistance. The height was raised to over 580 feet as building commenced, in order that the tower should be taller than the high-rise office blocks that were beginning to appear. Then, too, the decision was taken to include a restaurant, which confirmed the building's landmark status as well as giving it greater stability.

Bedford is remembered, too, as an adventurous commissioner of works from private architects, not all of which were realised. The building of a new British Library was first conceived under his guidance, when he organised a limited competition in 1968 for a site south of the British Museum. This was won by Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson, and many very young architects were also selected for interview. Sir Basil Spence and Partners built a new British Embassy in Rome that is among their most dramatic and successful works; unbuilt commissions included an embassy in Brasilia from the Smithsons, and a headquarters for the Post Office near St Paul's Cathedral from Ahrends Burton and Koralek.

Had these exciting projects been realised, government patronage would have had a very different image.

Elain Harwood