Ralph Erskine

Architect and urban planner

Ralph Erskine was an immensely talented architect, whose humanistic values were transferred into a large number of original, superbly designed, spacious and well detailed buildings, and into community schemes that transformed people's lives, whether in the hospital restaurant environment at St Goran's in Stockholm, or through the public housing participation and redevelopment process at the Byker estate in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Ralph Erskine, architect: born London 24 February 1914; CBE 1978; married 1939 Ruth Francis (died 1998; one son, two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Drottningholm, Sweden 16 March 2005.

Ralph Erskine was an immensely talented architect, whose humanistic values were transferred into a large number of original, superbly designed, spacious and well detailed buildings, and into community schemes that transformed people's lives, whether in the hospital restaurant environment at St Goran's in Stockholm, or through the public housing participation and redevelopment process at the Byker estate in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Erskine was born in Mill Hill, London in 1914. He attended the Quaker school at Saffron Walden in Essex from 1924 until 1932, after which he began his architectural training at the School of Architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic (now Westminster University), graduating in 1937. A year later he became an associate of the RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) and also qualified as an associate member of the Town Planning Institute (now the RTPI), as was often the case with graduates at that time interested in urban design.

He worked, inter alia, for Louis de Soissons in 1937-39, before setting out for Sweden, a country he had been inspired to visit by the keen interest that had been shown at the Poly and in London generally in "Swedish Modern" design. He was to stay in Sweden for the rest of his life. This was initially due to a default of circumstances and later by conviction, as he developed his unique interest in the regional northern architecture of Scandinavia.

At the time, however, it proved to be both a cultural shock to his mind and a climatic shock to his body. He was to recall later that he did try to get away, but his efforts to return to England from a neutral country at the outbreak of the Second World War failed. Also, he was a pacifist and Sweden offered a viable alternative to working in the Ambulance Corps. In 1940, finding himself with little or nothing to do, and still struggling to master a difficult language, he constructed his first house, a timber cabin in the woods.

During the ensuing war years, Erskine spent some time in the offices of the architects Weijke and Odeen and later took up a course at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. In 1946 he commenced in private practice on his own account. By 1950, he began to develop his ideas with a revision to the precepts of the modern architecture of the inter-war period. Functionalism, he claimed, had become sterile. He saw two ways to enrich the modernist cause. The first had to do with people and the way they use buildings and participate in the design process and the second with the development of ideas for the regional climatic environment.

In 1959 he was invited to Otterlo to attend a meeting of Team X, a group of architects concerned with the implications of modern buildings in the community. Erskine proved to be a provocative and stimulating speaker, addressing his colleagues on criteria for a northern architecture based on regional knowledge. His paper put forward a "grammar for high latitude architecture" which showed a profound understanding (and evidence of fundamental research) of the way building materials and structures performed in the extreme cold. The practical outcome of this work had been clearly demonstrated in his design for a Ski Hotel at Borgafjall (1948-50) which was then under construction and became well-known for the fact that it blended into the landscape and had a dramatic ski slope on its roof.

Another impressive project from this period was the cardboard factory at Fors, Sweden of 1950-53. This scheme was widely published in architectural magazines throughout the world, including the Architectural Review and brought Erskine into the international limelight. My generation was overawed by it, as it showed that brickwork had an expressive role in modern architecture, thus reinforcing the admiration British architects had for the work of Alvar Aalto in neighbouring Finland.

The factory was soon followed by the design of a number of housing projects, individual houses, apartment blocks, schools, and a church, as well as a series of competition wins including Clare Hall, Cambridge in 1968. Erskine was invited to enter a limited competition for housing at Killingworth, near Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1969, which began a period of close association with England, with projects in Milton Keynes, Newmarket and most significantly with the Byker redevelopment in Newcastle upon Tyne, a project which has become synonymous with his name. Byker has now been listed, with an international reputation as one of the most important urban housing projects of the post-war period, although it has suffered from crime and vandalism in recent years.

Byker was a shot in the arm for English architects interested in self-help and community participatory projects. It was large scale, yet it had areas of low rise and individual housing, with the outer skin of tall housing protecting the individual low-rise units from traffic noise and fumes. It helped establish the idea of tenant involvement in the design and occupation process, with a pop-in one-stop consultancy service for residents.

Erskine's main work after the English phase came mainly from Sweden, although there were some impressive projects in Italy (the renewal of Ancona), Austria (housing in Graz) and Canada (township, Resolute Bay). In 1988-92 he was back in the UK with his revolutionary ideas for a new kind of office block for the Larson Company, the Ark, set against the forbidding and inhospitable curves of the high speed and noisy Hammersmith flyover. There was nothing quite like it in London. An upturned and cut cone perhaps could best describe the unusual shape of this project, made possible not by Erskine's skill as a draughtsperson so much as by the new computer technology that was then developing. The result was a fluid, dynamic structure faced partly in a special brick, while inside the belly of office space was an atrium with a high-level pastiche of an Italian hilltop village at its navel. The building hit bad times and was not fully let after completion, but is now fully occupied.

There are many publications devoted to Erskine's career, including a fine, knowledgeable study by the English architect Peter Collymore ( The Architecture of Ralph Erskine, 1982) and a sensitive and well informed career biography by the Swedish architect Mats Egelius ( Ralph Erskine, Architect, 1975). Both publications cover an immense amount of work and chart the trajectory of what seemed to many an endless career, comparable in its extent to those of Frank Lloyd Wright and more recently Philip Johnson, both of whom left some telling projects until their late years.

Like Wright and Johnson, who are well known for their houses, it was Erskine's own house in Drottningholm that provided him with a laboratory of ideas. His eco-house was built in 1963 and reflected the local vernacular. It comprised three elements, the main house unit, a separate studio and garage block. Constructed of lightweight concrete panels, it has a ventilated black metal-finished roof to keep the snow and rain off the main insulated barrel vault below. This arrangement allows the snow to lie on the top roof and prevents icicles forming. All the blocks (including the saunas) are accessible from the delightful, well-planted courtyard which itself provides a foil to bitter winds from the sea.

Erskine received many honours and awards for his buildings including gold medals from Sweden, Canada and the RIBA. He was awarded the Wolf Prize in 1984, the year he was also made an Honorary Royal Academician.

As of February this year, Erskine's office in Stockholm now operates under the new title Erskine Tovatt Architects with a staff complement of 11. It is currently collaborating with Hurley Robertson Architects in the completion of the Greenwich Millennium Village in London, a project Ralph Erskine won in competition in 1998.

Dennis Sharp

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