Obituary: Michael Powers

Michael Anthony Robelou Powers, architect: born New York 19 May 1915; married Frances Wilson (two sons; one daughter); died London 24 August 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions