Obituary: Michael Powers
Thursday 08 September 1994
IN JULY 1939, 11 alumni of the Architectural Association rented a basement in central London, in Russell Square, and set up the Architects' Co-operative Partnership. They had youth, ideals and innocence in common; they wanted to work together as equals and in the modern manner, and to build buildings that would be socially useful. None had any work in hand to speak of, and soon they were dispersed by the Second World War. Improbably, eight came together again after the hostilities to rekindle the Architects' Co-Partnership (ACP), which is still going today.
Michael Powers was ACP's first anchorman. Though lacking the ideological drive of colleagues like Anthony Cox or Leo de Syllas, he turned out to be the most sensitive architect on the team. A gentlemanly herbivore, unconcerned with brutal gesture or personal credit, Powers got on with creating a series of gracious, well-crafted educational buildings that represent English Modernism at its most civilised. His best-known, the celebrated 'Beehive' building at St John's College, Oxford, has softened the heart of many a common-room ranter against modern architecture.
Powers was the only child of an Irish-American father and an English mother with an interest in art and antiques. He was born in the United States, but the family came to England when he was small. He had a conventional preparatory and public-school education, then went on to the Architectural Association. In the early 1930s the AA still functioned like a young gentlemen's club, but was in the throes of radicalisation. Powers was one of many who entered with his head full of Edwin Lutyens and country houses and came out dreaming of Le Corbusier, planned communities and group-working. A great influence at the AA was Robert Jordan, later principal of the school and a lifelong friend. After graduating Powers travelled to Sweden (a favourite destination for 'soft' Modernists), Paris and Rome, then worked with Berthold Lubetkin's former partners Godfrey Samuel and Val Harding before helping found ACP.
The accident of Powers' American citizenship kept him from conscription and led to the precious, but bizarre and challenging, job which allowed the ACP partners to get together again after the war. This was the enormous Brynmawr Rubber Factory in South Wales. Through Jordan, Powers and another colleague, Peter Cocke, found a wartime niche with Enfield Cables, where he met Lord Forrester of Corstorphine, the company's unworldly chairman. Forrester had done well out of the war and planned to invest his substantial profits into a gesture to help the post-war Welsh valleys. The factory was imposing and elegant, with nine shell-concrete domes over the main production area.
One of Britain's few architectural jobs of size and significance in the days of Stafford Cripps's cuts, the Brynmawr Rubber Factory was a place of pilgrimage during construction (Frank Lloyd Wright urinated on one of its pilotis). But it proved a baptism of fire for the inexperienced Powers, the main job-architect. It took five years to build and proved a logistical nightmare; the undercapitalised company closed within a year of opening. Rescued by Dunlops, the Brynmawr factory now again lies empty - but listed. After years of despondency and neglect, there is at last hope that it may yet find a new future.
Powers's friendship with Forrester, later fifth Earl of Verulam, survived Brynmawr and brought him and ACP other jobs, notably additions at Bryanston School, where Verulam was chairman of the Governors. Schools, private or state, were a staple of the practice in the 1950s and 1960s, and a speciality of Powers's. They allowed an architect to put humanity before individuality, and so suited him well. Among his best were schools for the Spastics Society at Meldreth and Dene Park, Tonbridge, and a little building at Hanford School, Dorset.
More conspicuously, he took over St Paul's Cathedral Choir School after Leo de Syllas died in 1964, and besides the Beehive for St John's, Powers worked on the Wolfson Building at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Corpus Christi, Oxford. (He had little to do with ACP's biggest educational venture, the formidable Essex University.)
On the strength of the state patronage of the 1950s, many of the ACP partners demonstrated their faith by building themselves little Swedish-style brick houses on Hampstead or Highgate infill sites. Powers, a veteran north Londoner, was no exception. He married Frances, stepdaughter of Sir Adrian Boult, in 1949. Ten years on they moved their children into a new house tucked behind a wall off East Heath Road, Hampstead, later retreating to a smaller modern home behind Grove Terrace, Highgate Road. One of those periodic storms that rustle London's northern heights, the battle for the defiantly placed Spaniards Inn tollhouse near Kenwood, drew Powers into conservation committee work. Later, after his retirement, he became, to his own surprise, chairman of the Victorian Society's Buildings Subcommittee. It was the time of the fiercest reaction against Modernism, and he presided with civility and frequent bemusement over many a violent diatribe against the whole race of modern architects.
Powers was a man of great amiability and clubbability (he was chairman of the Reform Club in the early 1980s), with a deep commitment to creativity in arts and crafts of any kind. He was intensely proud of his children, one of whom is a composer, another an artist and an historian.
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