Tim Bell

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Timothy John Bell, teacher of architecture: born London 18 June 1935; married 1963 Kris Ellam (two sons; marriage dissolved 1975); 1981 Diana Birkett (two sons); died London 4 July 2001.

Tim Bell was a remarkable teacher. His chosen field was architecture. He had a long association with Kingston, first as a student at the old College of Art and, from 1972 until his retirement last year, as a Principal Lecturer in the School of Architecture at what is now Kingston University.

He was an inspiring teacher in the Socratic sense: intellectually consistent, philosophical and engaging. He was a bright, caring, and intellectually stimulating person who encouraged knowledge and skills among generations of students. He had a knack of connecting things and exploring many areas within and adjacent to architecture, town history, landscapes and particularly concept design, a process that responds to sympathetic and inspirational caressing of the kind Bell was able to give.

Born in 1935, he came to architecture after a distinguished education first at St Paul's School, in London, on a state scholarship and thereafter reading Greats at Brasenose College, Oxford, topped up by his prowess as an oarsman. After working on a building site he liked what he saw and felt that architecture would be an appropriate discipline to enter. He enrolled as an undergraduate student at Kingston College of Art in 1958.

His long career at Kingston was punctuated by three major breaks. The first was as a student when he briefly worked as an assistant to Ralph Tubbs (of Dome of Discovery fame) and at the architectural practice Hening and Chitty. Then, after qualifying, with Howard V. Lobb (now HOK Sports) from 1961 to 1964.

In the mid-1980s he took a refuelling course at Cambridge under Professor Joseph Rykwert, gaining a MPhil exploring the connections between the work of Le Corbusier and social psychology. His choice of subject was not surprising as by this time he had married a psychotherapist and revived his interest in contemporary philosophy (he had attended Gilbert Ryle's lectures while at Oxford).

The new pseudo-discipline of architectural psychology had a short exposure at the Kingston School in the 1970s. Bell however was not hooked on fads. His views were intellectually grounded in the theoretical works of the Deconstructivist humanists Derrida and Foucault, and social anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss and Edmund Leach. He was able to convey relevant aspects of their work to students in the studio as well as through his carefully prepared lectures.

One of his tutorial techniques was based on the uniquely English method "Let's talk it over with a glass of beer". Holding court he could be good fun yet somehow direct a subject into a fruitful exchange of ideas often of great benefit to students who were unused to this kind and careful approach to teaching. It was like a family; his approach was shared also by some of the other staff members who enjoyed Bell's enthusiasm for helpful comment and the nurturing of creative ideas among their students.

Each year was punctuated by a visit abroad for students to see architecture for real. The two official Kingston buses were joined by a number of student-owned converted taxis and a medley of improbable conveyances, all heading for Florence or Barcelona for the well-informed, annual cultural fix from Bell and his colleague Bastion Falkenberg.

To the end he was his own man. It seems he had not found a new outlet for his academic talents in retirement, but he took up poetry again and elaborate cooking. He was – rather secretly – writing a novel. That will never be published, but talk among his colleagues and students is of a publication based on his lectures.