THE ARCHITECTURAL practice of Powell & Moya was one of the brightest lights in the years following the Second World War, and for nearly 50 years they continued to produce buildings of warmth and humanity, usually with an underlying social purpose.
Other architects were more charismatic and more intellectually rigorous, but few could match the felicity of Powell & Moya's designs. It may be that success at a very young age saved them from the necessity of having to shock which dogged so many of their contemporaries and the fact that they had found their direction during the 1940s, before the influence of English Brutalism or of American repetitiveness, enabled them to avoid some of the least popular facets of modern architecture.
During the Second World War the Architectural Association School of Architecture moved to Barnet. At a time when great buildings were being destroyed rather than created, Moya and other students of an idealistic generation planned their Utopian visions of a post-war world. But the buildings actually constructed in the post-war years were not very exciting; the need was great and quantity was an overriding concern.
In 1946 Jacko Moya, in partnership with his fellow students Michael and Philip Powell, won the competition for Churchill Gardens, Pimlico, comprising 1,800 dwellings, 30 shops, pubs, nursery school, and a library. It was an entire city quarter and the architects were in their mid-twenties. Into a grim world of shortages it brought real architectural quality. What local authority would give such an opportunity today?
Churchill Gardens, built in phases between 1946 and 1962, stretches for 500 metres along the north bank of the Thames. Anyone who wants to catch something of the optimism of Britain after the war should go there. Many of the old buildings on the site had been bombed, the rest were seen as obsolete and were demolished.
The new buildings were mostly nine-storey blocks, set at right angles to the Thames to give views for those set far back from the river. These blocks were constructed of concrete and faced in yellow sand-lime bricks, a nod in the direction of the traditional London yellow bricks. This use of brick was something of a surprise, for architects within the modern movement at the time were expected to use materials with less of a handicraft imagery; but Powell & Moya had seen the poor weathering of the pre-war modern buildings in London, and chose a material that would weather well. For the low blocks, which were easier to redecorate, they used the white painted render of the pre-war modern buildings, and the periodic repainting of these has ensured that the development has been continually freshened up.
It was not just in its architectural excellence that Churchill Gardens was a breakthrough. It was technically inventive too, with its 'district' heating, utilising waste heat from Battersea Power Station across the river. Hot water came under the Thames and was stored in a 40-metre-high glass- clad tower and distributed from a pump house designed as a delicious jeu d'esprit, a glass box modelled on the glass and steel house Philip Johnson had just completed in Connecticut.
Other housing developments followed. At Lamble Street in Gospel Oak, London, in 1953, a lower density permitted rows of two-
storey houses. The clients, St Pancras Borough Council, expressed dismay at this, believing that modern Londoners should live in flats. However, the architects prevailed and, 40 years later, fancy front doors indicate the alacrity with which tenants have used right-to- buy legislation to acquire these desirable houses. A more recent development, in Endell Street, Covent Garden, shows the change in architectural mood over 30 years from the slabs-in-a-park imagery at Churchill Gardens to low buildings on the old street frontage in Govent Garden.
Low-cost housing was necessary and in accord with the practice's ideals, but it was the winning of the competition for the Skylon that brought them fame. This Vertical Feature for the 1951 Festival site on the South Bank, in London, was a bit of fun and nonsense after years of utilitarian building. It may have been nonsense, but it was a very innovative structure and, working with the engineer Felix Samuely, it was all put together in a very short time.
After the completion of the Skylon, Michael Powell left and Philip Powell and Jacko Moya developed the practice on their own. Philip Powell was the front man and received a knighthood, but it was a practice shared and they jointly won architecture's highest award, the RIBA Gold Medal, in 1974.
In 1956 Powell & Moya completed the Mayfield Comprehensive School in Putney, south-west London, now sadly spoilt by recladding. At a time when system building reigned supreme they showed that conventional construction could be cheaper. As the baby-boom generation grew older, building shifted from schools to universities, and such was the quality of Powell & Moya's work that they were employed by colleges at the leading universities.
The 30 bedrooms built in 1961 for Brasenose College, Oxford, used real stone and real lead to give a modern architecture that could hold its own in a traditional setting. This was followed by the Cripps Building for St John's College, Cambridge (1967), where a straight modern plan is bent and staggered to form courtyards and to give intricacy and intimacy to the spaces around it.
Blue Boar Quad at Christ Church, Oxford, places rooms underground to retain the flavour of the spaces and includes one of the most beautiful art galleries in the country. The new Wolfson College, Oxford (1974), and new buildings for Queens' College, Cambridge (1976-78) followed. They were on more open sites, and the designs gain in clarity but lack the contrast of old and new that was such a pleasure in the earlier schemes.
Universities were followed by hospitals. Early Powell & Moya hospitals, such as the Princess Margaret at Swindon (started in 1961), are straight, elegant, and spare. Later ones, such as Maidstone District General (1983), are 'user-friendly', with pitched roofs, welcoming entrance, and garden courts.
In 1961 Powell & Moya designed the Chichester Theatre, the first professional theatre built in England with an open stage. Twenty years later they designed the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre opposite Westminster Abbey, an unashamedly modern building that sits in this most historic site with dignity and harmony. In 1992, Jack Moya left the practice and retired to his house in Rye.
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