Obituary: William Tatton Brown
Monday 10 February 1997
After a year at the Architectural Association in 1928, Tatton Brown read History at Cambridge, but ended up in his final year studying architecture under Hugh Casson. Back in Depression London, and unable to find work, he used contacts made in Cambridge in the Quaker International Student Services to obtain employment in France. Although turned down by Le Corbusier, he secured a position with the architect Andre Lurcat, without much knowledge of who he was.
Lurcat, the architect of the famous Karl Marx school at Villejuif, was an ardent Communist who sent his young and cosmopolitan (French, Belgian, German, American and now English) staff to lectures on Marxism, and set them to work on theoretical projects to investigate the "maison minimum" when the real work dried up.
Tatton Brown already suffered from the widespread middle-class liberal unease with prevailing social conditions, and he had been deeply moved by the hunger marchers he had witnessed while at Cambridge. He now willingly embraced Communism and its creed of internationalism, which had a particular appeal to a generation that wanted no more war. Having returned to England and completed his studies at the AA, his politics and his French connections stood him in good stead to get a job in 1934 with the radical architectural practice Tecton, founded two years earlier by the Russian emigre architect Berthold Lubetkin.
Lubetkin, whose training had spanned Soviet Russia, Weimar Germany and Paris, had a clear vision of the ideological role of modern architecture which contrasted sharply with the genteel amateurism of the pioneer English Modern Movement, and Tecton rapidly became the most celebrated practitioners of the new architecture in pre-war Britain. Although initially employed in a relatively lowly capacity in the office in Haymarket, Tatton Brown worked on several important schemes, including the winning entry in a competition to design working- class flats, and he was job architect for Highpoint 2 flats in Highgate, a building whose innovatory elevation treatment enraged local residents and modern architects alike.
It is a measure of the aura which surrounds the charismatic figure of Lubetkin, that although architects like Tatton Brown achieved considerable success in their later careers it is likely that they will always be remembered as members of Tecton. Certainly Tatton Brown was more than willing to state his indebtedness to Lubetkin, and although he readily acknowledged Lubetkin's awkward nature, he was always keen to emphasise his great personal affection for "Tolek".
Tatton Brown became a very active member of Modernist circles in the later 1930s, and as a British delegate to the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) he was able to meet such leading lights as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. He was also involved in the design of the famous Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group exhibition at the New Burlington Gallery in 1938.
In 1936 he had married Aileen Sparrow, an ex-pupil of Leslie Martin and one of three women working at Tecton, which in itself was highly unusual in the 1930s. In their early married life prior to children they lived at the top of the late Jane Drew's house in Woburn Square. Aileen had already left Tecton to go to the Architectural Press, and in 1938 William set up in independent practice, before entering into partnership with Lionel Brett, later Lord Esher.
Within a short while the outbreak of war brought a halt to architectural production, although in 1942 William and Aileen published an ambitious project for the replanning of a bombed London district in the Architectural Review. Like many other architects Tatton Brown became a sapper and saw service in India and in the re-conquest of Burma. On the long boat journey out to India, he and the architect Percy Johnson-Marshall organised seminars and an exhibition for the men about the future role of architecture, and after the Japanese surrender they toured around the bombed cities of Burma discussing re-planning with local officials.
In peacetime, Tatton Brown embarked on an exemplary career in the service of the Welfare State, which in this new era of massive state-sponsored building programmes of houses, hospitals and schools, was as likely to mean direct employment by technocratic government ministries and local authorities as it was the old patterns of private practice. It also represented a cooling of the old revolutionary ardour, and the acceptance of a more pragmatic approach to the role of architecture in fostering social progress.
After demobilisation in 1946, the army paid his fees to take a Town Planning course at the AA, and Tatton Brown then joined the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning under Lord Holford, where Percy Johnson-Marshall, Peter Shepheard and Hugh Casson had also arrived. Frustrated by their inability to do more than rubber-stamp local authority plans, disillusion with civil service life quickly set in amongst this talented group, and in 1948 Tatton Brown was appointed Deputy County Architect for Hertfordshire, with specific responsibility for the county's famous school building programme (some six or eight new were built each year). William and Aileen moved their growing family to Berkhamsted, where they also farmed, taking home the pig swill from Hertford County Hall every day after work.
In 1959 Tatton Brown was appointed as the first ever Chief Architect to the Ministry of Health, where he was in charge of large-scale hospital building until the mid-1970s, supervising a department of at least 120 architects. His philosophy for hospital design was to develop services that would be available to all, but in buildings that represented value for money. Drawing on his own experiences of using industrial techniques in school building, and on models from Scandinavia and the United States, he worked to maintain standards but to reduce construction costs. Although officially retiring in 1971, he stayed on by request for at least another five years, and his continuing concern with this work led to the publication in 1985 of Hospitals: Design and Development, written with Paul James.
In retirement, William Tatton Brown was happy to give his time to answer questions about his own experiences, although he much preferred to talk about his wife's career, of which he was obviously fiercely proud. His generosity was such that a request for an interview was extended into several afternoons of vivid anecdotes and reminiscences in his delightful garden. I last saw him at the annual Berthold Lubetkin Memorial Lecture, given appropriately enough by Tony Benn, where he appeared very happy in the company of old comrades, and members of the Lubetkin family.
William Eden Tatton Brown, architect: born 13 October 1910; Chief Architect, Ministry of Health, later Department of Health and Social Security 1959- 71; CB 1965; married 1936 Aileen Sparrow (two sons, one daughter and one son deceased); died 2 February 1997.
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