Obituary: Robert Hening

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The Independent Online
Working as a young assistant to the architect Oswald P. Milne in 1930, Robert Hening was sent to Dartington Hall, Devon, where Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst were establishing their experiment in rural regeneration and progressive education, with Milne as their favoured architect. Bill Curry, the new headmaster of Dartington School, insisted that his house be designed not by the conservative Milne but by the Swiss-American modernist William Lescaze. Hening exchanged architectural allegiances and stayed on in the congenial atmosphere of Dartington to help in the construction of the flat-roofed, blue-and-white painted High Cross House, a long and tortuous process.

Later buildings by Lescaze, for which Hening was an indispensable intermediary, displayed the practical and economic advantages of modernism as well as its aesthetics, and for this development Hening was chiefly responsible. His letters and reports survive in the Dartington Archives (now housed at the restored High Cross), showing his skill with words as well as with building materials. In common with several English modernists, he became particularly interested in new potential for timber building.

Born in Wallasey, Hening came from a family with strong sea-going connections, but after education at Wallasey Grammar School he broke the family tradition and, provoked by the ugliness of his immediate surroundings, became an articled pupil of the Liverpool architect Edmund Ware. Although briefly at University College London, he did not bother with architectural exams or theory, displaying instead an almost Arts and Crafts understanding of modern architecture as a way of planning and building for the greatest benefit and least maintenance to the user.

In 1937 Hening went into partnership with Anthony Chitty, an old Etonian former member of Tecton, the partnership formed in 1932 by Berthold Lubetkin. Their qualities were complementary, Chitty urbane and Hening brusque, neither being designers of star quality. Their principal pre-war works were municipal airports commissioned by Whitney Straight, Dorothy Elmhirst's son by her first marriage, who was skilled at persuading local councils to pay for airports which he then operated. The buildings at Exeter and Ipswich were simple but modern, with good facilities for eating and drinking and even for playing squash. The Ipswich airport of 1938 was listed in 1996, to Hening's delight.

After Hening's war service in the Royal Engineers, finishing in Burma, Hening and Chitty resumed their practice and put through a sizeable amount of housing, commercial, industrial and educational work before Chitty's retirement in the mid-1960s and Hening's gradual winding-down of the remaining jobs.

He relished the difficulties of post-war building, adopting the Hertfordshire system of prefabrication for several schools. Hening and Chitty's parallel ranks of six-storey flats (274 units in 12 blocks) in Cromer Street, St Pancras, 1946-50, built mainly for railway workers, attracted attention with a mixed palette of materials including novel aggregate-faced cladding slabs for the end walls which weathered well until a recent total recladding. Ian Nairn compared their seven- and ten-storey Dombey Street flats, Holborn, 1947-49, to the social realism of Vittorio de Sica's film Bicycle Thieves (1947), his highest commendation.

Hening continued to work at Dartington, designing the Higher Close student accommodation and the Music School for the College of Arts, which was so successful that its specification was requested by institutions all over the world.

Dorothy Elmhirst asked him one day for a design for a building to act as a focus on a wooded hilltop at a distant point in the garden. After rejecting dozens of possibilities, she warmed to the idea of a classical garden temple, suggesting that it might be circular. This sort of work was outside Hening's range, so at Leonard Elmhirst's prompting he compromised on a semi- circle, making an untypical but successful finale to his long Dartington career.

Michael Murray, who became an Associate Partner, recalls Hening telephoning contractors and clerks of works and enjoying a good row to start the day. He could spot detailing mistakes on a drawing board instantly and always asked what happened at the end and the corners.

Tall and handsome, Robert Hening enjoyed cars, good clothes, travel and telling stories of his wartime experiences. He wrote poetry throughout his life and in his long retirement he explored much of South London on foot, studying its buildings.

Robert Hening, architect: born Wallasey, Cheshire 23 July 1906; MBE 1946; married 1931 Viola James (died 1988; one son, one daughter); died London 24 July 1997.