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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future