Obituary: Edward Mills
Monday 02 February 1998
The timber-framed farmhouse in Surrey where Edward Mills lived is not the setting in which one would expect to find a pioneer of modern architecture, but modernism was for him essentially a continuation of the straightforward building practice of the past. His career was distinguished by a concern with the way that buildings are made and what happens to them thereafter. He was also more interested than many modern architects in the people who used them, and far from insensitive to their visual style.
Mills's Methodist faith was an important aspect of his life. It shaped his upbringing in Streatham, south-west London, in the 1920s, provided his first independent commission, for a Methodist Church at nearby Colliers Wood in 1937, and determined his wartime role as a conscientious objector.
His father and grandfather were involved in construction and he started his career as an architect in 1930, aged 15, learning from the bottom up in a small London firm, Smee and Houchin. At Regent Street Polytechnic, he switched his allegiance from Lutyens to Le Corbusier, and was delighted when he discovered a vigorous young third-year master, E. Maxwell Fry, who was himself in the process of discovering modern architecture.
Mills joined Fry as his first assistant in 1934, when Fry broke away from the town planning practice of Adams and Thompson. This was a congenial and creative environment, a crossroads for the varied social and artistic ideas of modernism. Later in 1934 Walter Gropius, the former director of the Bauhaus, seeking refuge from Nazism in England, and his assistant A.E. Proskauer, joined the practice. Outside the office, Mills became an avid follower of ballet and was involved in the Methodist Youth Service Council and raising funds for victims of the Spanish Civil War.
The commission for the church and hall at Colliers Wood was offered in 1936, but only in 1937 when funds were found to build it did Mills set up on his own. The plan allowed for flexible use of the spaces, with a focus on community and social activity. The style is redolent of the 1930s, with a pleasant approach from the street under a concrete canopy, held up on thin steel columns, past a front garden into a light and airy central space.
This was originally distinguished by a mural of Christ washing the disciples' feet, by the emigre German artist Hans Feibusch who had previously done several commissions for Fry. Mills was proud that, although later detached and lost, this was the first of Feibusch's long sequence of church murals.
Edward Mills married on 2 September 1939, the day before war was declared, and found architectural work for the duration of the Second World War with the pharmaceutical firm May & Baker of Dagenham, a subsidiary of Rhone-Poulenc. As manufacturers of the first commercially available antibiotic, the factory needed to expand and Mills built a canteen with a wavy shell concrete roof to overcome the shortage of steel. This cheerful but modest building was a breakthrough in a building technique which became widespread after the war. It still serves its original function and was one of the earliest post-war buildings to be listed.
After the war, Mills re- established his practice in London and built flats in Kenmure Road, Hackney, in 1947, using the box-frame principle developed by Ove Arup for Lubetkin and Tecton's Spa Green Flats, Islington. His practice included industrial buildings, schools, and further Methodist churches at West Greenwich, Mitcham and Woking and the cathedral at Mbale, Uganda.
He was designer for the administration building, squeezed on to the South Bank site for the Festival of Britain as an afterthought, and for a distinctive screen of coloured balls. He was architect for the British Industry Pavilion at the Brussels Expo 1958, creating a plain box with curtain walling and a space frame canopy in front, a precursor of his last and largest building, the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham.
Mills wrote books on factory, church and office design, all with a clear practical approach. His standard work Building Maintenance and Preservation (1980), when last revised in 1994, included commentaries on the posterity of the classic modern buildings of his youth. He was one of the first to recognise the short life expectancy of many of the techniques which had replaced traditional building after the war.
In the summer of 1997 celebrated 60 years of architectural practice with an exhibition and party in his barn at Lingfield.
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