Viscount Esher

Architect and former Rector of the Royal College of Art
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The Independent Online

Lionel Gordon Baliol Brett, architect and town planner: born Windsor, Berkshire 18 July 1913; succeeded 1963 as fourth Viscount Esher; President, RIBA 1965-67; CBE 1970; Rector and Vice-Provost, Royal College of Art 1971-78; Chairman, Advisory Board for Redundant Churches 1977-83; married 1935 Christian Pike (five sons, one daughter); died Reading, Berkshire 9 July 2004.

After a brilliant career at Eton and Oxford, Lionel Brett, later fourth Viscount Esher, wondered whether to go into politics or be an architect. He became an architect of moderate ability, as he was willing to acknowledge (although the partners in his practice during the 1960s produced some outstanding work), but in the politics of architecture he was a valuable and important figure in his own right.

As President of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1964-65, he gave his skills to the organisation of his profession, and soon afterwards completed a study of the conservation of York that has remained a benchmark in the progress of sane conservation.

His father, Oliver, the third Viscount Esher, was Chairman of the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings and of the National Trust, a literary figure with many connections in architecture and preservation, who bought Watlington Park on the edge of the Chilterns as a family home in 1921. One of Lionel's aunts was married to the last Rajah of Sarawak while another, the artist Dorothy Brett, was a friend of D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, and lived in Mexico until her death at 93.

Their father, Reginald, the second Viscount, was a powerful but complex figure in Edwardian politics, operating behind the scenes, and at the time of Lionel's birth in 1913 (he was born in his grandfather's house, Orchard Lea, outside Windsor), held the title of Deputy Governor and Constable of Windsor Castle. Lionel's mother was American, "unclubbable by nature and too impatient for committee work".

Having married Christian Pike just as he was leaving New College, Oxford, where he read History under a future Minister of Housing, Richard Crossman, Lionel Brett proceeded to the Architectural Association but found himself as a late entrant in a duffers' class. He left, to learn from the traditionalist A. S. G. Butler, and then as a non-qualified partner of William and Aileen Tatton-Brown, notable among the younger modernists. He passed the RIBA external exams in the summer of 1939, winning the Ashpitel Prize, which he spent on books by Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford.

By the outbreak of war, he had built only a small extension to the house of another aunt, the actress Zena Dare, and what he called an "aesthetically embarrassing" house in Loudon Road, London, for himself. Brett's war was spent mostly in Britain, training gunners in the Royal Artillery, until he followed in the wake of D-Day, through France and Belgium to witness the surrender of Lübeck and Hamburg. In 1945, he stood as Liberal Candidate for South Oxfordshire, coming third at the polls.

Esher wrote of this time that, although by the end of the Second World War he had forgotten almost everything about architecture,

what had been drummed into me by 23 years of élitist education, was solid idealism plus the use of words. With these, I thought, one could set about the rebuilding of England.

Clough Williams-Ellis, who in the immediate post-war years was a serious force in planning, got Brett a job replanning Littlehampton, but nothing came of it. Deciding to salvage Watlington and give his four sons (later joined by a further son and daughter) a country home, Brett moved his nascent practice there, and offered accommodation in the house to his staff, before in 1955 cutting off its excrescences for more practical family living, until he handed over to his eldest son, Christopher, at which point he retreated to The Tower, Christmas Common, his romantic creation of 1967, complete with a two-armed moat in which he could swim.

Brett's first partner, Kenneth Boyd, preferred to work in London, however, and ran their housing commission in Hatfield New Town from there. It was some 50 of their two-storey terraced houses, planned in attractive serpentine lines, which lost their monopitch roofs in one night of storm in November 1957. Unusually for such a case, a public inquiry was called, with maximum publicity from which Brett smarted for the rest of his life, and a financial liability shared with the contractor, Wimpey. His first architectural partnership, Brett, Boyd and Bosanquet, blew away too.

From this period, despite not wanting to be known as a country-house architect, he was most proud of small houses in Oxfordshire for Hans Juda and Warwickshire for Lord Dormer. A design for the High Commissioner's residence in Lagos in 1958 was compromised by the taste of an incoming Commissioner's wife.

Soon afterwards, Brett arranged a loose partnership, as Brett and Pollen, with Francis Pollen, a brilliant designer who had emerged from a love of Lutyens to become a serious modernist. Later, they were joined by Harry Teggin, a much younger architect who was able to devise buildings in black glass and steel, starting with 190 Sloane Street. The office moved from Watlington to Queen Anne's Gate, and Pall Mall Court, Manchester, and the Portsmouth Civic Centre followed, for 13 years from 1963, in which year he succeeded his father in the viscountcy.

Esher liked this up-to-date style, but, as in his first partnership, found himself in a power struggle to resolve which he ended the practice in 1971. His own hand is not always easy to trace in the projects. The Thomas Wood Building for Exeter College, Oxford, incorporating Parker's Bookshop, was originally by Peter Bosanquet, although Esher worked over them. He wrote, "with the hindsight of the more rhetorical Seventies some of our stuff looked pusillanimous and dull".

Esher's real interest was in planning, for which he had the right combination of visual and administrative skills. He advocated building on brownfield sites before they even had a name, but many of his early planning studies were not taken up. His conservation survey of south Oxfordshire, published in 1965 as Landscape in Distress, made him a suitable candidate for one of the pilot studies of historic towns that Richard Crossman was planning for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

Commissioned in 1966, the studies of Bath, Chester, Chichester and York each contributed to the new breadth of understanding of what conservation could achieve for quality of life. Esher chose York, where the aim was to encourage people to move back into the walled city to live, by converting houses to student accommodation, taming the car, and making a host of minor improvements. Despite a rocky start, when the council refused to fund the study, it was wholly successful in creating a new enthusiasm for city living. The handsome book York: a study in conservation (1968) was prefaced by words from the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck that for Esher told the whole story:

This much is certain: the town has no room for the citizen - no meaning at all - unless he is gathered into its meaning. As for architecture; it need do no more than assist man's homecoming.

The end of the Brett and Pollen partnership was triggered by Esher's appointment as Rector of the Royal College of Art. He came in on a wave of student rebellion that rose and fell in militancy, leading finally to a student occupation, from which his allies on the staff were able to win a truce. In 1978, Esher retired bruised once more, and spent the succeeding years writing and painting. A Broken Wave: the rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (1981) was a lucid attempt to chronicle and analyse the contested achievements of post-war architecture and planning, following on from Parameters and Images: architecture in a crowded world (1970), a book born of the post-heroic mood that followed modernism.

In 1985, Ourselves Unknown, his autobiography, was a work of literature in its own right, as well as an insightful self-portrait of a man too much aware of his own contradictions. In it, he records how he nursed his wife, who survives him, through a long mental breakdown in the 1960s, but she gave him equal support and strength over nearly 70 years.

Alan Powers