H. T. Cadbury-Brown: Architect who designed the Royal College of Art

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The Independent Online

H. T. Cadbury-Brown belonged to the pioneering generation of architects who discovered the Modern Movement in the 1930s. However, he rapidly moved beyond mere functionalism towards an architecture that was expressive, dignified and above all beautifully made.

Cadbury-Brown was the last surviving British architect to have worked on the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS) exhibition in 1938 that marked a coming-of-age for modern architecture in Britain. Many of its organisers were recalled a decade later to work on the Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank, Cadbury-Brown among them. But his most important work was for schools and universities, particularly the Royal College of Art in Kensington Gore, where he also taught, where the quality of the detailing was perhaps even more important than the building's actual style.

The Royal College of Art is a muscular building, cleverly proportioned internally to create a series of spaces that could be used for a variety of heavy industrial plant. Yet the full-height doors and tall windows (their rooftop grouping reminiscent of the work of Louis Kahn, well-known to Cadbury-Brown through his American wife) have a delicacy and finesse in the neatness of their surrounds, formerly also seen in the interiors too.

Cadbury-Brown was known from childhood as Jim, after a family friend who had been killed in the First World War. He spent a somewhat lonely childhood in rural Essex before boarding at Westminster school. There his talents for maths and drawing received recognition, and family friends suggested architecture as a career and introduced him to F. R. Yerbury at the Architectural Association. He found life at the AA "bliss". (Indeed, he later served as president of the institution, and steered it through an uncertain period between 1959-60 when its independence was in doubt.) As a student, from 1930-35, he was made aware of the importance of landscape by Geoffrey Jellicoe, but his first designs were mostly traditional. An older student, Bobby Banks, introduced him to Le Corbusier, and thence Cadbury-Brown discovered German modernism, in particular the work of Walter Gropius. A thesis on low-cost housing led Cadbury-Brown to assume a lifelong socialism, with a belief in the importance of state provision for schools and housing. He then worked for a year for Ernö Goldfinger, one of the few modernist architects in London. A beauty parlour remained unbuilt, but Goldfinger's demand for strong, austere detailing infused much of Cadbury-Brown's own work.

In 1937 Cadbury-Brown won a competition to design two travel centres for the "big four" railway companies. Now long gone, they impressed enough to enable Cadbury-Brown to start his own practice, supported by exhibition designs. His war service from 1939 to 1945, mainly in artillery, was one of the few subjects on which he was reticent, caught as he was between a desire to defeat Hitler and a basic pacifism. Demobbed in 1945, he obtained commissions for housing and schools in Harlow, and for housing in Hammersmith, as well as teaching and exhibition work.

It was with the Festival of Britain that Cadbury-Brown came to the fore, working with his MARS group friends Hugh Casson and Ralph Tubbs, who were on the organising committee. Casson wanted people who would pull together, and gave Cadbury-Brown the commission for the central concourse that united the loose-knit thread of pavilions, and the entrances to the two main sections of the exhibition, "The Land of Britain" and "The People of Britain". Cadbury-Brown felt that the Festival marked a new dawn, for enjoying life on modern terms, and for a brighter socialism. Its abiding image is of couples dancing in the evenings amid his primitive cats'-eye lights and illuminated fountains. He was assisted by his future wife, the American Betty Dale, who had also worked briefly for Goldfinger and shared his passion for detail. They married in 1953.

The Festival led to further collaborations with Casson, mainly on interiors, such as for R.S. Canberra and in London for the Time and Life Building and the Shell Centre, but also the Royal College of Art, where they both taught. Cadbury-Brown did the design work while Casson smoothed the way through committees. The building's dark brick reflected the grimy condition of its neighbours. The main tower had to be robust, to house a stack of industrial workshops, and exemplifies Cadbury-Brown's desire to create an architecture that was "lean and spare" yet unusually bold and assured for post-war Britain. To one side was a lower exhibition hall, its interior immaculately detailed by Betty.

Cadbury-Brown designed many educational buildings. At Ashmount School, Islington, he pushed the London County Council's standard lightweight steel system to a new degree of refinement with a glass curtain wall (now spoiled by poor repairs). A pair of halls of residence at Birmingham University has been rebuilt, but Cadbury-Brown's favourite commission survives, a block of lecture theatres at Essex University conceived as a series of linked octagons, a counterpart to the anonymous spaces of the main building by the Architects' Co-Partnership and including a large double-height foyer, again carefully detailed.

From the late 1960s he made a second career in public housing, working up Eric Lyons' concept for Chelsea's World's End into a realisable scheme, developing the brick patterns that are the greatest feature of the eight towers and designing the lower buildings, including a small chapel. It led to further housing work from the City of Westminster. From 1975 to 1988 Cadbury-Brown served as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, where he redesigned the library and print room, detailed in dark materials and glass ("rather like John Soane", he considered) and incorporating large Victorian sculpture. The rooms reflect years of careful design work (a similar library at Nottingham University had already been demolished), timeless, yet firmly modern.

Most precious of all was the Cadbury-Browns' home in Aldeburgh (1964), single-storey yet generous in space, in which every element is considered, with roof lights where they are needed, as over work surfaces, a strongly axial plan that culminates in a sunken living room, and an artfully artless garden, much of it allowed to run wild. There the Cadbury-Browns engaged their visitors with exceptional hospitality. Omelettes and whisky sours gave way to quiche in latter years, when Jim fought increasing infirmities with fortitude, retaining the astuteness of mind – joyously forceful in its loves and hates – that made him a brilliant raconteur.

Henry Thomas Cadbury-Brown, architect: born Sarratt, Hertfordshire 20 May 1913; married 1953 Elizabeth Dale (née Elwyn) (died 2002); died Aldeburgh, Suffolk 9 July 2009.