Obituary: Michael Blee
Thursday 14 March 1996
The son of a clergyman, born in 1931, Blee himself became an Anglican lay reader, and strove all his professional life for the reunification of the arts in the life of the Church - something that made him identify with the notion of being a "Goth".
He studied architecture at the Brighton College of Arts and Crafts (now Brighton University), and spent his National Service in the Royal Engineers in Malaya. This gave him the opportunity to produce a study of colour in Malayan village settlements for which he was later awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects' Owen Jones Studentship in 1957. He opted to be demobbed in the Far East, and went on to work in Singapore and in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as well as travelling to Japan, India and Greece where he researched sacred architecture, laying the foundations for his subsequent development. Back in England he joined his brother Anthony Blee, also an architect, working for Basil Spence. A Fulbright Award in 1957 then took him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), followed by work at the Architects Collaborative under Walter Gropius.
Michael Blee's own work, consisting largely of housing and churches, was perhaps modest in commercial terms, but it was conducted over 30 years against a background of full-time teaching in the Brighton School of Architecture where he was responsible for the initiation and development of the Interior Design degree course, earned a PhD degree from Sussex University and was a central contributor to the activities of the RIBA in the south-east region and its Sussex branch. His standards never dropped and everything in which he was engaged was marked by a commitment to detail and a single-minded control which students and colleagues found equally demanding.
Two of his unrealised housing projects are memorable because of their scale of vision and sheer panache: a 37-storey hotel on Brighton seafront designed in 1980 and a massive housing scheme on a chalk cliff overlooking Lewes in 1975. The controversy over these was considerable, but the fact that they were instrumental in getting people to talk about their environment delighted him.
Blee's career spanned a period when the design of churches was subject to momentous change. From the middle of the 20th century, the liturgical movement promoted the view that the celebrant, and therefore the position of the altar in a church, should be moved closer to the congregation. The reintroduction of the altar from its isolated east-end location to the heart of the church was fully in accord with Blee's own convictions, and the use of structural expressionism, following the William Butterfield and G.E. Street tradition, seemed to him consistent with the kind of modernism he espoused.
Such an attitude was wholly compatible with the reintroduction of able craftsmen and their expressions, not only in the use of their skills, but in their participation with him in an annual service of dedication and worship at Southease Church on the edge of the Ouse Valley. He was also a member of the Art Workers Guild.
The "genius loci" of place was important to him, and the extent of the awards, Civic Trust, RIBA and others, that he was given showed that these qualities of contextualism as well as invention, were widely professionally appreciated. Prize-winning projects included the Priory of Our Lady of Good Counsel at Sayers Common (1980), All Saints, Isleworth (1974), the Church of the Holy Innocents at Orpington (1984), St Paul's Church, Brentford (1992) and the soaring roofs and spaces of Douai's Abbey Church (1993), at Woolhampton in Berkshire.
Douai's abbey church was built from 1928 to 1932, when the money ran out and it was left unfinished. Fifty-five years later Michael Blee was commissioned to complete it. These dominant roofs of local materials were always accompanied by complex decorative features with some functional origin: turrets, aedicules (little canopied niches for statues of saints - one of Michael Blee's favourite words) and the like. Internally, they were marked by complex structural framing systems, often of wood, seeking the opportunity for "connective celebration" in the Pugin tradition. Similarly the interior fittings, made by his beloved craftsmen, always in fine materials, confirmed his conscious linking in the same tradition.
These buildings together show unmistakably the values, preoccupations, skills and attitudes of a much valued colleague and they will remain as witnesses to his commitment.
Michael Blee, architect: born Brighton, Sussex 8 March 1931; married 1960 Alexandra Louka-tof (four sons, one daughter); died Lewes, Sussex 18 February 1996.
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