Sir George Grenfell-Baines

Outspoken founder of Building Design Partnership
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George Baines, architect and planner: born Preston, Lancashire 30 April 1908; partner and chairman, Building Design Partnership 1959-74; OBE 1960; Vice-President, Royal Institute of British Architects 1967-69; Professor and Head of Department of Architecture, Sheffield University 1972-75 (Emeritus); founder, The Design Teaching Practice 1974-79; Kt 1978; married 1939 Dorothy Hodson (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1954 Milena Fleischmann (one son, one daughter); died Preston 9 May 2003.

Sir George Grenfell-Baines was a Lancashire railwayman's son who, in a career spanning almost the entire 20th century, used the force of his considerable personality to take modern architecture to the mill town of his birth and throughout Britain.

The firm he founded in Preston in 1959, Building Design Partnership, grew out of the Grenfell-Baines Group, created in 1941 with "two architects and one lady secretary." BDP (nowadays the largest UK architectural firm by turnover) is his enduring legacy. His impact there was felt less as an individual designer than in his dogged application of radical, co-operative, socialist principles to the management of design and engineering.

This made BDP the first truly "multi-disciplinary" architectural firm in England, an innovation that sometimes brought Grenfell-Baines into conflict with the predominantly London metropolitan individualists who dominated the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and who wished to preserve the effortless superiority of architects over lesser mortals. The BDP ideology, in which equity (engineers and architects were placed on the same level) combined with economy (for clients it was cheaper to get all their services "in-house" from a single firm) happily created the circumstances for profit.

As a result, BDP supplied many of the commercial and public buildings that sheltered and insulated the "white heat of the technological revolution", in Harold Wilson's phrase. BDP prospered, such that in the 1960s the firm sported the improbable (to Preston eyes) letterhead "12 Guildhall Street, Preston and 4 Cavendish Place, Upper Regent Street, London". Commissions poured in: Blackburn town centre; the Chloride Technical Research Centre, Manchester; Preston bus station; the Halifax Building Society headquarters (which had "a quality and vigour not seen since the Victorian era of Italianate mills" according to RIBA awards assessors); the Northern Bank in Donegal Square, Belfast. By 1980, BDP employed 1,000 staff, an astonishing achievement in an industry where, even today, the majority of practitioners work in firms comprising 10 persons or fewer.

These and countless other buildings were executed in the sensible, no-nonsense but unashamedly modern designs that together would permit BDP, and Grenfell-Baines himself, a unique claim to be compared to that other discerning factory of modern design, the great American firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

He was born George Baines in 1908 (his mother's maiden name was Grenfell and he later adopted this in his professional career) and attended elementary school in Preston, a predominantly Roman Catholic town. During the First World War, by the time he was nine years old (the year of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia), he was looking after his uncle's market stall in Preston. His mother's family was Methodist, his Grenfell uncles Methodist preachers. The Protestant, non-conformist tradition, suspicious of luxury, wary of art, favoured "doing" over "dreaming". This made it hard for a boy interested in the practical art of architecture, to assert aesthetic interests. Preston's most distinguished building, the neo-classical Harris Museum, designed by James Hibbert, made a deep impression on him.

At the age of 15, he was put to work in the office of the Preston Rating Surveyor before joining the Bolton architects Bradshaw, Gass and Hope. Here he learnt mathematics and draughtsmanship – and to know his place. An error in his drawing would mean a summons to one of the partners for a dressing-down; nor was he expected to have architectural opinions. This, however, did little to prevent him expressing them, and George Grenfell-Baines soon gained a reputation for outspokenness that endured throughout his career. Although many decades later, he made a distinguished contribution to the work of the RIBA, serving on its many committees for many years and acting as its Vice-President from 1967 to 1969, the top job eluded him.

In 1930s England, there were many safer careers open to talent than architecture. The cultural climate was not propitious. The satirist Osbert Lancaster, in Pillar to Post: the pocket lamp of architecture (1938), wrote of architecture as "an activity about which the average man cares little and knows less." In 1934, Grenfell-Baines entered Manchester University School of Architecture, where he won prizes. Third place in a competition to design the Parliament building for Southern Rhodesia (1936) meant he had sufficient money to start his own practice. During the Second World War he remained a civilian, practising architecture under a dispensation known as a "Reserved Occupation" to aid the war effort. He exploited opportunities provided by the industrialist Lord Nelson's English Electric aircraft factories at Preston and Salmesbury to build runways and hangars. There were no debts because the government always paid on time.

After the war, Grenfell-Baines expanded energetically the scope of his firm, working on the design of Aycliffe and Peterlee New Towns with Lord Beveridge, and at the Festival of Britain creating the "Power and Production" pavilion. He was the only provincial architect to contribute to the Festival designs, supervised by Hugh Casson.

Although by 1940 Grenfell-Baines had rejected the staid Edwardian stylistic conventions under which he had trained as a draughtsman, he was careful to retain their emphasis on the acquisition of practical skills. In later life, he lamented the modern architectural education that encourages flashy, superficial gestures without any underpinning technique. He had himself acquired skills that related the art of architecture directly to the craft of building. "I think of architecture as an airline business – and in that context, aerobatics is irresponsible nonsense", he said in 1980. In the 1970s, he sought to apply these principles in the creation of a new architecture course at Sheffield University, where in 1972 he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Architecture.

He was appointed OBE in 1960 and was knighted in 1978.

Rory Coonan