Patrick Gwynne

Modernist architect of playful sophistication
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The Independent Online

Alban Patrick Gwynne, architect: born Portchester, Hampshire 24 March 1913; died Esher, Surrey 3 May 2003.

The architect Patrick Gwynne died just as restoration work nears completion on his own house, which he has left to the National Trust.

Born in 1913, Gwynne was a Harrow schoolboy when he discovered modern architecture. He attended a sketching class near Amersham, in Buckinghamshire, and there on the hill was Amyas Connell's High and Over, the first truly Modern Movement house in Britain. "That sold me," he said. His father had wanted him to become an accountant, but accepted Gwynne's decision to become an architect, and secured articles for him with Ernest Coleridge, a pupil of Edwin Lutyens, "traditional but decent".

Having completed his pupillage, Gwynne looked to find work with a modern practice. He put an advertisement in the Architects' Journal, but had no offers. Then he was introduced to Swedish friends of the architect Wells Coates, who held a party so that the two could meet. Coates was a larger-than-life figure, "a swashbuckler", who had founded the Modern Architecture Research Group and was designing modern flats in Palace Gate, London, and a house in Benfleet, Essex.

For two years Gwynne worked in Coates's office, while designing a new house for his parents. This was the Homewood, built to replace a rambling Victorian house just outside Esher, in Surrey, using the profits of a windfall investment made by his parents from the sale of their small Welsh estate. Coates advised on technical matters, and Denys Lasdun, another of Coates's assistants, designed the elliptical terrace pool.

The Homewood is an exceptional house in its scale and completeness. Gwynne acknowledged Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat House as sources, raising the principal accommodation on pilotis and creating one large living room with a dining area screened at one end. The bedrooms were in a separate wing. His parents had "one good year" in the house, but died early in the Second World War, while Gwynne was serving in the Royal Air Force constructing airfields.

In 1946 he restored the house for his own occupation, remodelling the kitchen to the new servantless age (though he continued to be looked after by his "great friends" Raymond and Janet) and adapting his parents' bedroom as an addition to his office. Murals by Peter Thompson and Stephan Knapp, and furniture to Gwynne's own design, were added over the years.

After the war Gwynne established a reputation for restaurant design, and for private houses. His second-placed scheme for the restaurant competition at the Festival of Britain led to a commission for the Crescent Restaurant at Battersea Fun Fair. It was a real tent, with Regency-style bows to support the structure, each painted a different colour of the rainbow.

It introduced him, too, to Fortes, for whom he went on in 1964 to design the Serpentine Restaurant in Hyde Park, a series of mushroom structures inspired by umbrellas - which he thought appropriate in a park. It was demolished in 1990, but his smaller Dell Restaurant at the other end of the park survives, and the terrazzo terrace and built-in seating overlooking the Serpentine still demonstrate Gwynne's playful sophistication.

The Serpentine Restaurant also led to a commission for a restaurant addition to the Theatre Royal at York, where the mushroom structure was repeated around a sweeping, freestanding staircase.

For his private houses, Gwynne developed a close-knit set of clients that included his builder, Leslie Bilsby, for whom he designed three houses, and his quantity surveyor, Kenneth Monk. These houses mark the apogee of Sixties life style, many designed as a series of connecting rooms that could be thrown together for parties, and with built-in dressers and drinks cabinets. Televisions and gramophones were cunningly concealed, and in one house were hinged within the wall to serve different rooms.

Gwynne also advised on furnishings and landscaping, to create a complete ensemble. His use of plastic finishes, including a special grass paper, was also distinctively his own. "People seem to recognise my work as being from my hand in spite of the strong influence of client and site," he wrote in 1984.

Ever inventive as he was, his later houses became more curvilinear, with rounded corners; one in Blackheath is designed as a series of linked pentagons, a space-age capsule that nevertheless follows the proportions of its Regency neighbours.

Following the National Trust's successful campaign to acquire Ernö Goldfinger's house in Willow Road, Hampstead, in 1993 Gwynne offered the Homewood. It was a unique opportunity to acquire the last great pre-war modern house with its fittings and grounds intact. Avanti Architects worked with Gwynne on the patient restoration of the house.

Earlier this year Gwynne was still developing designs for a new house in the grounds that will create an income for the trust. Despite increasing frailty, he remained a charming and mischievous host, a perfectionist, and a brilliant raconteur.

Elain Harwood

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