Obituary: Michael Blee

Michael Blee was an enlightened architect and a gifted and inspiring teacher. But it was in his church work - which ranged from completing Douai Abbey to a recent design for a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Balham - that his heart lay, and it is for this that he will be remembered.

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.

Peter Bareham

Michael Blee, architect: born Brighton, Sussex 8 March 1931; married 1960 Alexandra Louka-tof (four sons, one daughter); died Lewes, Sussex 18 February 1996.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

HSE Manger - Solar

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: HSE Mana...

Data Governance Manager (Solvency II) – Contract – Up to £450 daily rate, 6 month (may go Permanent)

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently looking...

Recruitment Resourcer

£18000 - £22000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Recruitment Resour...

2nd line support - Derbyshire - 6 months

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: 2nd line support - Derbyshire - 6 months...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried