Sir Peter Shepheard

Architect with an understanding of people and nature
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The Independent Online

Peter Faulkner Shepheard, architect, town planner and landscape architect: born Birkenhead, Cheshire 11 November 1913; architect, Ministry of Supply, Royal Ordnance Factories 1940-43; technical officer, Ministry of Town and Planning 1943-47; Deputy Chief Architect and Planner, Stevenage Development Corporation 1947-48; in private practice 1948-2002; President, Architectural Association 1954-55; President, Institute of Landscape Architects 1965-66; President, RIBA 1969-71; Visiting Professor of Landscape Architecture, Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania 1959, 1962-71, Dean of Fine Arts 1971-79, Professor of Architecture and Environmental Design 1971-94; CBE 1972; Artistic Adviser, Commonwealth War Graves Commission 1977-2002; Kt 1980; married 1943 Mary Bailey (one son, one daughter); died London 11 April 2002.

"I came into architecture by accident, by way of an ambition to become a biologist," explained Peter Shepheard in his Presidential Address to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1969. Shepheard combined a love of nature with his practice as an architect and demonstrated his passionate belief in the unity of the professions of architecture, landscape architecture and town planning in the course of a successful and prolific career as a practitioner, teacher and professional leader.

Architecture was not accidental, since Shepheard's father was an architect in Liverpool. Peter's early years were spent observing and drawing birds in their habitats, a passion which remained with him in later years, when he illustrated books in the King Penguin series, A Book of Ducks (1951) and Woodland Birds (1955). He was due to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, but "hated the specialism which the biologists insisted on". Instead, at the last minute, he switched to the Liverpool University School of Architecture, during the last years of its famous head, Sir Charles Reilly.

Modernism hit the school while he was there, and his final year design was for 10-storey blocks of flats. Liverpool had an established specialism in planning study, and he stayed on as a Graduate Scholar in Civic Design before becoming an assistant to Reilly's son-in-law Derek Bridgwater in 1937.

During the Second World War, Shepheard worked first on munitions-factory buildings and in 1943 joined his godfather Sir Patrick Abercrombie as part of a talented team preparing the Greater London Plan, which benefited from his skill as a perspective artist. In 1945, Lewis Silkin, as Minister for Town and Country Planning, decided to implement the London plan's recommendations for new towns, beginning with Stevenage. Shepheard joined Gordon Stephenson as Deputy Chief Architect and Planner, making an important contribution to the design of the pedestrianised town centre, with its steps between different levels and its sense of protective enclosure.

Disappointed by slow progress at Stevenage, Shepheard became Bridgwater's partner in 1948. He was joined successively by Gabriel Epstein and Peter Hunter. Their work was typically modest and suited to the programmes of housing and education in which they specialised.

Shepheard believed in the virtues of "background" architecture on analogy with Georgian terraces, an ideal promoted by Reilly and Abercrombie in their time. Bridgwater and Shepheard's terraced housing on the Lansbury Estate, Poplar, in east London, for the Festival of Britain was a demonstration in the public eye, but Shepheard made an even greater contribution to 1951 in his landscaping of the downstream site at the South Bank. This was both playful and practical, with rocky outcrops, changes of level, and a strategically placed moat around the outdoor seating of the Lion and Unicorn Café that prevented customers escaping without paying.

Shepheard's understanding of people and nature informed his work. In 1964 he persuaded the London Borough of Camden to develop a large housing site between Royal College Street and Camden Street with four-storey pitched-roof blocks enclosing three-sided paved squares which achieved the same density as the high-rise intended for the site.

His work could look almost traditional, like the New Hall at Winchester College (1958-60), but Bishop Otter College at Chichester, built in 1961, appealed to Ian Nairn and Nikolaus Pevsner for its "sensitivity in the roof-lines and the enclosure of space" in a style without mannerisms. The masterplan for Lancaster University, begun on a hilltop site in 1963, repeats some of the features of the Stevenage town centre, with enclosed squares as weather protection, and predominantly low-rise buildings.

If buildings were the background, landscape for Shepheard was the foreground. In his book Modern Gardens (1953), Shepheard admitted that the techniques of landscape had scarcely altered since the 18th century and allowed for continuity, but he took inspiration from designers such as Thomas Church and Garrett Eckbo in the United States and many in Europe who had developed new ways of using the familiar materials. He saw how trees attract light, and wrote of Berkeley Square, "the trees hold sunlight in their leaves like a bright curtain in front of the shadow". Small-scale public landscapes by Shepheard in London include Russell Square, recently replaced after long neglect, Bunhill Fields, Bessborough Gardens and Cheyne Walk. He also designed the restoration of the garden at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex.

Shepheard confessed to "what I suppose I should call a lust for teaching" and exercised it in annual visits to the University of Pennsylvania, where he also carried out a number of landscape schemes. He insisted that his students learnt to draw. He was impressed by the work and personality of his colleague Louis Kahn, whose influence added strength to Shepheard's work without diminishing its poise. Shepheard also considered his London office "a good finishing school for architects".

In 1994, soon after retiring from Penn, Shepheard suffered a stroke which confined him to a wheelchair, but he continued as many activities as possible, like his advisory role to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Shepheard said that his ideal architect

must be a man who loves the earth as it is – not, I hasten to add, the way we run it, but the way sunlight comes to the eyes, the air to the lungs and the food to the mouth. We have been taught too long by the Judaeo-Christian ethic that the world is a vale of tears.

His wit, practicality and balanced judgment made him an effective committee man, and he was President of the Architectural Association and of the Institute of Landscape Architects, and Master of the Art Workers Guild in its centenary year, 1984, in addition to serving on the Royal Fine Art Commission and the Countryside Commission. His pencil drawings of birds were eagerly collected at the end of meetings.

Alan Powers

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