Obituary: Edwin Johnston
Tuesday 18 January 1994
THE PAGES of a slim volume of verse by Tessa Ransford, Shadows of the Greater Hill (1987), are interspersed by evocative photographs of Edinburgh by the architect Edwin Johnston. This is entirely appropriate, for not only did he have an extensive and sympathetic knowledge of his adopted city, but also his interest in his own subject required him continually to explore the actual and possible relationships of architecture to nature and the arts, especially the visual arts.
Johnston was born in County Tyrone in 1941, the son of a tailor. There were four brothers and their father made all their suits until they left home. Johnston left to read architecture at Hull, Manchester, and Edinburgh College of Art, but always retained a fondness for finely detailed shirts and quality materials. His critical faculties developed early: while a student, his critiques and photographs were published by the Architectural Review, Britain's most important architectural journal. He graduated with distinction in 1966.
Edinburgh became Johnston's home. As a young and junior architect in the large Edinburgh practice of Robert Matthew, Johnson-
Marshall he continued to be heavily involved in writing about architecture. His early critical work developed to examinations of some of the principal planning issues of the day; a new road through the Meadows; what to do with Calton Hill. The partners often found that a notable contributor to debates which might involve potential clients was within their own office.
Johnston's interest in conservation brought him discriminating private clients of his own, and he joined his student friend Nicholas Groves-Raines in setting up a practice which completed several notable buildings including the Landmark Centre in Stirling (opened in 1971) and sheltered housing at Cameron Toll, Edinburgh (opened in 1983).
An invitation to teach at Edinburgh University in 1977 coincided with his feeling that architectural practice was a game not always worth the candle: to make good buildings is a constant struggle. By 1979, when he was headhunted to teach at the Mackintosh School at Glasgow University, his mind was made up. He accepted, and made the first in a series of outstanding contributions to architectural teaching in Scotland.
Johnston was a clear-sighted critic with a very gentle manner whom students loved and respected. His practice's work on building conservation encouraged him to foster students' interests in local architectural history, traditional forms of building construction and regional characteristics in architecture. Always very much his own man, he was not afraid to go against widely held beliefs. At the Mackintosh School, where the architectural emphasis tended to be on the permanent and monumental, Johnston pursued the ephemeral and the temporary: Victorian corrugated iron buildings. Intellectually, he enjoyed WR Lethaby's view that ' 'architecture' must give way to houses as efficient as bicycles', but, typically, he was not arguing for his own preferences, but reaching beyond that to a universal standpoint. His guiding principle (like Lethaby's) was a clear distinction between art with meaning and 'a style that is only a sham'.
Similar concerns with principles preoccupied Johnston's writing. He was one of the very few architectural critics to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of defensive propaganda which greeted publication of the Prince of Wales's book A Vision of Britain (1989). As the Economist's correspondent, he noted that 'the issue is not the virtues of differing architectural styles - classicism, high-tech, modernism and the rest - but the principles that should govern any kind of building'. He relished the Prince of Wales's contributions because they promoted debate; and, with an almost missionary zeal, he fought for further discussion of architecture not only through his work but by annotating and photocopying numerous newspaper cuttings and sending them off almost every day to colleagues and influential sceptics.
This produced its critics: to be on the frontier is an exciting but exposed position and even enthusiasts were sometimes nonplussed by his commitment. When Charles McKean did not mention the cantilevered elegance of the Forth Railway Bridge in the first editions of his book on Edinburgh, Edinburgh: an illustrated architectural guide (1982), Johnston thought that he should resign as Secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland for missing what he felt to be Edinburgh's best building.
But more typical because of its wit and understatement was his response to Roger Scruton's remark in the Sunday Telegraph that 'conservation should not be necessary'. I still remember his broad mischievous smile as he showed me his response: 'How does he care for his teeth?'
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