Obituary: Francis Skinner
Saturday 17 January 1998
Francis Skinner was the last surviving of the seven original members of Tecton, the pioneering architectural practice formed under Berthold Lubetkin in 1932 that dominated the formative period of the Modern Movement in Britain. Skinner was Lubetkin's closest colleague, who shared and supported his charismatic partner's belief in modern architecture as an instrument of social progress.
Born in Kuala Lumpur the eldest of three brothers and two sisters, Francis Skinner was "sent home" to England at an early age to be brought up by a maternal aunt in Reading. Entering the Architectural Association in 1927 he became disenchanted with the traditionalist teaching and focused on the radical developments in Europe, many of which he had visited by 1930. A contemporary recalls him reducing an AA studio master to tears in a school crit with his scheme for a Florentine Renaissance church composed entirely of exposed RSJs. His first building, a prize-winning reinforced concrete house for the Modern Homes Exhibition at Gidea Park was completed in 1934 when he was only 26.
"Freddie" Skinner was deeply engaged in the political struggles of the 1930s, being a committed member of the Communist Party and the secretary and driving force of the Architects & Technicians Organisation, which campaigned for better housing conditions and building practices. He was also active in the AASTA (Association of Architects, Surveyors and Technical Assistants) and ABT (Association of Building Technicians), which promoted unionisation of building workers and salaried staff.
This activity was all pursued alongside his work in Tecton, where, as for Lubetkin, his political and professional aspirations converged most closely in the work for Finsbury Council, beginning with the Health Centre completed in 1938 and now listed Grade I. The same year Skinner visited Spain to study the effects of aerial bombardment in the Civil War, his findings contributing to Tecton's controversial scheme of deep bomb-proof shelters for Finsbury. Though these eventually came to nothing his knowledge was re-applied during the Second World War when he served with the Royal Engineers and volunteered for bomb disposal work, having found routine duties too dull.
Tecton's work resumed after the war with the housing projects at Spa and Priory Green, Paddington and Holford Square, Skinner seeing through the Finsbury schemes during Lubetkin's tenure at Peterlee. Skinner declined an invitation from Le Corbusier to join him at Chandigarh in 1950 but continued with major housing developments in Bethnal Green, Hackney and Southwark in the reformed firm of Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin. This arrangement, whereby Skinner played a key but generally unacknowledged role in running the practice, enabled Lubetkin to remain professionally active during the period when he is widely but mistakenly supposed to have forsaken architecture for farming.
Francis Skinner, the only founding member of Tecton to stay with Lubetkin for his entire professional life, once described his celebrated partner as "the most complete architect you could imagine - a brilliant designer, knowledgeable about structure, very persuasive with clients and a good organiser". But he modestly omitted to mention the qualities he himself brought to their association that made it so durable - a critical appreciation of Lubetkin's vision, a comparable aesthetic sensibility and the inexhaustible dedication and tenacity needed to produce buildings of lasting significance. Their compatible personalities and the complementary nature of their gifts resulted in a unique body of work that neither could have achieved on his own.
Skinner retired in the 1970s to Suffolk, where he continued with various personal projects, including teaching himself Russian and making an extensive study of historic houses and castles. Typically, he approached these not from a sentimental or tourist perspective but as manifestations of Britain's social structure and political development. With his wife Jo, a professional artist and accomplished geologist, he would embark on several tours each year, carefully planned around the locations of their objectives - a series of buildings in his case, a group of fossil sites in hers. Their mutual devotion accommodated these different interests with characteristic generosity, travelling in separate camper vans to pre-agreed destinations where they would re-unite each evening to discuss the day's exploits.
Behind Francis Skinner's innate reticence lay unshakeable egalitarian ideals and a profound belief in the essential humanism of art and science. The very embodiment of George Orwell's phrase "the crystal spirit", he was steadfast, gentle and true.
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