Obituary: Noel Moffett

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The Independent Online
William Noel Moffett, architect and teacher: born Cork 25 December 1912; married three times (one son); died London 17 May 1994.

THE architect Noel Moffett was a born teacher. His death, as a result of injuries sustained in a recent traffic accident, has deprived architecture of one of its more popular and charming characters.

Impressively tall, Moffett, together with his Polish-born architect wife Alina, was a familiar figure on the architectural scene in London for many years. His genial, open attitude and his passionately held opinions will be greatly missed in these circles. Elsewhere he will probably be best remembered as an innovative architect, a fine artist and draughtsman, a useful journalist (he wrote a book on James Joyce's Dublin and edited a fine issue of Architectural Design on Japan in 1956). He was above all a dedicated teacher who could inspire students to find new ways of doing, seeing and recording things. One skill he developed was the 'one-minute sketch', a technique of observing the main lines of a subject without recourse to photography. His sketches have been widely exhibited and


Noel Moffett was born in Cork on Christmay Day 1912, of Presbyterian parents. Educated at Cork Grammar School, Mountjoy School and Trinity College, Dublin, he later moved to Liverpool University where he gained an honours degree in architecture in 1938 and graduated in town planning the following year. In 1939 he spent some time in Serge Chermayeff's office, working on Chermayeff's own house, Bentley Wood, at Halland, in Sussex. He also worked for a time in the offices of Burnet, Tait and Lorne and of Joseph Emberton, all practices that had an interest in Modern architecture.

Returning to Ireland during the Second World War, Moffett began a practice in Dublin and ran an atelier which included among its members the later well-regarded American architects Kevin Roche and Reg Malcolmson. It was here in the atelier that his life-long interest in teaching began.

During his time in Dublin he designed many buildings including an open-air theatre (1941), a synagogue, prefabricated low-cost concrete housing (with wooden door handles, as no metals were available) and many exhibitions.

In 1950 he was back in London. He joined the teaching staff at Kingston College of Art (now Kingston University) and from 1962 to 1970 was Head of Town Planning there. By that time his London practice (shared with his wife Alina from 1960) had taken off and he began a succession of housing schemes, some of which were published in Architectural Design and other professional journals. The best known of these were for a group of flats for retired professionals in Priory Road, West Hampstead, and a group of flats for old people on the old GLC White City Estate, both of which employed a prefabricated system of hexagonal units.

Despite this busy life as a practitioner Noel Moffett found time to get thoroughly immersed in regional and local organisations for the RIBA, the Civic Trust and the Architectural Association, as well as many public inquiries. It was while a council member and later President of the AA (1974-75) that he fought side by side with its autocratic chairman, Alvin Boyarsky (with whom he built up a relationship that combined fear with admiration), for the AA School's survival, spending much of his time working with students on the controversial school Forum.

Moffett was committed to students and their welfare. On one memorable occasion in Paris in 1965, he was given an opportunity to speak at a plenary session of the International Union of Architects' Congress. With his white locks and shining bald dome catching the arc lights, he chastised his audience with almost Messianic zeal in French (tinged with his mild Irish brogue) for leaving students out in the cold. 'You must give them a hearing,' he cried, 'they are our profession's future.' Few heeded his pleas and no action was taken: three years later les evenements overtook the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the student rebellion took hold. After Moffett had given his warning and we were all about to leave central Paris in a coach for Versailles, groups of students lined the route crying: 'Vive Moffett, vive Moffett.' It was a prophetic moment.

The AA Presidency brought with it opportunities for Moffett to travel to the United States where for the last period of his professional life he became immersed in academe. He taught first at Iowa University, Ames, and then had longish stints (in his late sixties and early seventies) at Moscow, Idaho, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor, and at Washington State University, where he was Visiting Professor of Architecture. Latterly he ran the London base (at the AA) of the WSU European Programme. He gave his last talk to WSU students only a month or so ago.

Over a number of decades he also established professional connections with colleagues in Poland and carried out projects there. More recently he provided the Poles with a survey of recent British architectural trends in their magazine Architektura (No 6, 1988) which he later expanded as The Best of British Architecture (1993). It certainly was not the best thing he had done - it was far too subjective for that - but it displayed, as did so many other of his efforts, a vivacious enthusiasm for his subject and a deep desire to inform.

(Photograph omitted)