ALISTER MacDONALD will be remembered as a pioneer in many aspects of architectural science. Throughout his long career he was interested in building science and experimental materials, helping to found the Royal Institute of British Architects' architectural science board, lecturing on scientific lighting and promoting building research.
He was born in 1898, and his education was suspended by the outbreak of the First World War. On leaving Bedales School in 1915, where he had been educated with his brother Malcolm after the tragic loss of their mother when he was 13, he took the brave step of declaring his pacifist beliefs and in 1916, when he was 18, volunteered as an orderly with the Friends Ambulance Unit. He worked for three years on No 17 ambulance train in northern France ferrying the wounded from the trenches back to the coast to be shipped to England. He drew haunting pen-and-ink drawings of the devastated countryside as well as doing comedy turns in the revues organised on board. The horrors of what he experienced never left him and he often told us, his children, about his life on the train and the wounded men he cared for.
In 1926 he became a member of the RIBA after studying at London University, where he was a Donaldson medallist at the Bartlett School of Architecture, working on building sites to earn his keep. He talked with pride of working for Frank Verity at that time as clerk of works on the Plaza Cinema in London.
At the end of the 1920s he went to New York to study skyscrapers and then to Hollywood to look at lighting and sound insulation on film sets. After his Spartan, rather lonely upbringing he was surprised to find that it was he who was the object of interest, thanks to his dashing good looks and the fact that he was the eldest son of James Ramsay MacDonald, Britain's first Labour prime minister. When we were children old photos would occasionally be produced and we would marvel at the stagy photographs of him with the film stars of the era. He made friends with Charlie Chaplin, whom he invited to Chequers to meet his father.
He also went to Italy to study Mussolini's venture in draining the marshes around Rome to build housing. There he met Mussolini and was invited to collaborate with Italian engineers in designing a skyscraper in the Piazza Diaz in Milan. Plans were drawn up but never implemented as relations between Britain and Italy deteriorated.
It was a courageous decision of Alister's to break away from his family's immersion in politics to become an architect - a move not entirely understood by his father. Even years later, when he was recognised in his own field and had practices in London and Edinburgh, Manny Shinwell wrote to him 'You could have done work for the party.'
He specialised in news theatres during the boom years of cinema- building. Among his designs in England and Scotland were those at Victoria and Waterloo stations which used back projection and insulation against the noise of steam trains. He also designed the Peace Pavilion for the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938.
He was one of the band of architects who at the outbreak of the Second World War decided that St Paul's Cathedral must be saved. Spurred on by the Dean, they set up a firefighting vigil, known as the St Paul's Watch, armed with only hassocks and buckets of water. He maintained a close friendship with the Dean and his three youngest children were christened in St Paul's.
His interest in children led him, in the Fifties, to become honorary architect to among others the Nursery School Association, the Sunshine Homes for Blind Babies and Save the Children Fund. With his strong Scottishness he worked too with the Royal Scottish Corporation and Caledonian Society. He was involved in the post-war school building programe, designed the Methodist churches at Amersham, Harlesden and High Wycombe, and the memorial wing of the Victory Ex-Services Club in Edgware Road. He also rebuilt the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts' Vanbrugh Theatre and refurbished, in conjunction with Cecil Masey, the Comedy Theatre.
In the Sixties he travelled widely, doing work in Yemen, Mombasa, in Jordan for his friend King Hussein, Cyprus and Malta. Two of his last executed projects were the building of the Churchill Memorial complex for the previous Sultan of Brunei in the early Seventies, for which he was awarded the title of Dato, and the town centre at St Austell. He was a stickler for detail and fairness, but was also on occasion a great prankster: one of his favourite party tricks being to remove his waistcoat while still wearing his jacket. He enjoyed giving parties and filling his St John's Wood home with people, including an annual party for the 'Seventeeners', his mates in the Friends Ambulance Unit.
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