Obituary: Dale Owen
Friday 28 November 1997
Dale Owen was a leading figure on the Welsh architectural scene, one of a group of British post-war architects whose approach to the design of buildings and cities was strongly influenced by study and practice in the United States. He was also active in the public life of South Wales and, though he never swerved from the principles of the Bauhaus, was much involved in efforts to protect historic buildings and the landscape of his native Wales.
In the mid-1960s, the colleges of the University of Wales were growing rapidly. Percy Thomas Partnership, for whom Owen was then working, recast the campuses at Swansea, Aberystwyth and Cardiff, where Owen's economics tower was allowed to burst through the hallowed skyline of Cathays Park. The new BBC Wales headquarters in Llandaff, Cardiff, was another major work of the 1960s. Owen recalled with delight his victory over penny-pinching bureaucrats in persuading the corporation to buy real Mies chairs for the reception area.
He valued quality over any issue of style, though he had little time for Post-Modernism and rigorously eschewed the folksy look when designing a new gallery block for the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagan's - he later extended the building in collaboration with his wife, Maureen, who was also an architect.
Owen was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1924. He attended Whitchurch Grammar School and went on to the Welsh School of Architecture in 1941. War service between 1943 and 1946 - he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery - took him to the North-West Frontier of India. After completing his professional training in Cardiff and at the London School of Planning, he worked in London and for the Development Corporation of the new town of Cwmbran.
His interest in planning and urban design was strong and in 1954 he went to the United States to study at MIT and Harvard as a research scholar. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, was then the dominant figure at Harvard and Owen spent over a year working for Gropius's practice, the Architects' Collaborative, in Cambridge. Shortly after returning to Britain, he took up a position as a senior architect/planner with William Holford & Partners in London.
It was Sir Percy Thomas, a talented architectural impresario and twice President of the RIBA, who brought him back to Wales. Owen joined the Percy Thomas Partnership in 1958, becoming an associate and then, in 1964, a partner. He was a key figure in the firm, bringing to it an international vision of modern design. The Percy Thomas style was transformed and became uncompromisingly contemporary. Though the practice had expanded beyond Wales, Thomas - for whom Owen maintained an unwavering respect - persuaded his bright young associate to stay in the Principality, where there was much work to be done.
Dale Owen was a passionate Welshman, though he could not - and regretted the fact - speak the language. He could, however, be critical of what he saw as the parochialism and small-mindedness of Wales. He was a good friend to younger architects and unflinchingly backed Zaha Hadid's Cardiff opera-house project, which he considered a work of genius. (The fact that his old practice gained lottery funding, on the day of his death, for a vastly inferior replacement scheme would not have pleased Owen - its role in the matter had dismayed him.) At the time of his death, he was advising Pankaj Patel and Andrew Taylor on a major expansion scheme for the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
After his retirement from Percy Thomas Partnership in 1989, he set up a consultancy based at his home in Penarth - a delightful 1930s modernistic villa stuffed with books and pictures - and his wife, whom he married in 1964, subsequently became his professional partner. One son of the marriage died tragically in 1984 but their two surviving sons delighted their parents by deciding to become architects.
Public and voluntary work took up a good deal of Owen's time in recent years. He served as High Sheriff of South Glamorgan and Deputy Lieutenant, chaired the regional group of the Victorian Society and (a major commitment) the Civic Trust for Wales, and was very active in the building preservation trust movement.
Owen was equally active in professional circles, sitting on the RIBA Council and serving as President of the Society of Architects in Wales in 1977-79. (His wife later became a distinguished incumbent of the office.) He was proud of his work for the United Nations Association and of his appointment as honorary architect to its headquarters, the Temple of Peace in Cardiff, a fine work of the 1930s by his lieber Meister, Percy Thomas, and took as much pleasure in the design of a tiny work - such as a niche in the New Theatre, Cardiff, for a bust of Richard Burton - as in the replanning of an entire district.
Though politically a sceptic, Dale Owen had enormous faith in the power of art and architecture to enhance people's lives.
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