Obituary: Professor Percy Johnson-Marshall

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The Independent Online
Percy Johnson-Marshall, architect and planning consultant: born 20 January 1915; planning architect, Coventry 1938- 41; served Royal Engineers 1942-46; Assistant Regional Planner, Ministry of Town and Country Planning 1946-49; Group Planning Officer, London County Council 1949-59; Senior Lecturer, Department of Architecture, Edinburgh University 1959-64; Professor of Urban Design and Regional Planning, Edinburgh University 1964-85; CMG 1975; Director, Patrick Geddes Centre for Planning Studies, Edinburgh University 1985-93; twice married (three sons, four daughters); died Edinburgh 14 July 1993.

PERCY JOHNSON-MARSHALL devoted the whole of his professional life to the practice of architecture and town planning as a vital public service. Like so many young architects who emerged in the decade before the Second World War, he became involved in the flowering of the modern movement in Britain, which, in his case, he saw not so much as the opportunity to create exciting new forms, but as a revitalising force in the reconstruction of Britain's towns and cities.

Even in his student days at the Liverpool School of Architecture, he believed that architects could do the greatest social good by working in the public offices of counties and cities. He remained firm in this resolve. His infectious enthusiasm was such that he persuaded many of his contemporaries to follow his example. After the war, many of the most talented young architects joined local government offices to become involved in redevelopment projects. Among them was Percy's brother Stirrat, renowned for his imaginative designs for Hertfordshire's extensive prefabricated school buildings porgramme.

Johnson-Marshall was a great admirer of Sir Donald Gibson, Chief Architect-Planner of Coventry, as the exemplar of the socially committed public architect. In 1938, after completing his architectural and planning courses, he was appointed to Gibson's staff. It proved a stimulating relationship for them both. Gibson was promoting a radical redevelopment plan for the centre of Coventry, introducing a traffic-free shopping centre for the first time in Britain. This proved difficult to sell to the council until in 1941 the Nazis blitzed Coventry and devastated the heart of the city. An even bolder plan became possible, and Johnson-Marshall, his own house wrecked, threw himself wholeheartedly into the challenge, knowing that his call-up to the army was imminent. Rotterdam was seriously bombed in the same year, and Johnson-Marshall gained inspiration from that city's chief planner, Cornelius Van Traa. Rotterdam and Coventry became twin cities and their innovative plans were realised after the war.

It was typical of Johnson-Marshall that from his army camp in England, torn away from his compelling task, and shattered by the death of his young wife, he rounded up his contemporaries, most of them in uniform, and persuaded them to produce sketch designs for public buildings destined for allotted sites on the master-plan, to give realism to the presentation drawings and model.

Just before the war, Lewis Mumford's seminal book The Culture of Cities had appeared in Britain. Ranging over the city in history and exploring the social potential of modern planning organisation, it was just the nourishment that the frustrated young architects and planners needed. It made an enormous impression on Johnson-Marshall, and Mumford became his guru. In 1944 Johnson-Marshall married April Bridger.

At the end of the war, after army service overseas. Johnson-Marshall joined the London County Council's architecture department under its Chief, John Forshaw, who had collaborated with Sir Patrick Abercrombie in producing the Greater London Plan for post-war development of the City region. Johnson-Marshall was involved in implementation studies. In 1952 Forshaw was succeeded by Sir Robert Matthew, who appointed Johnson-Marshall to be head of the Reconstruction Areas Group, in which he exhibited great zeal as a team leader. In the years between 1955 and 1965 he undertook a mammoth survey in recording the reconstruction plans which had been prepared for the bombed cities of Europe. Many will remember the brilliant lectures, based on these studies and illustrated by quick-fire multiple projection, which Johnson-Marshall delivered at the RIBA, in London, and elsewhere in Britain.

In his book Rebuilding Cities the most significant post-war European schemes are illustrated and critically assessed, alongside imaginative historical examples and prophetic projects. The book was published in 1966 by Edinburgh University Press, for by this time Johnson-Marshall had been appointed Professor of Urban Design and Regional Planning at the university. Here he found himself again working in accord with Matthew, now Professor of Architecture. Both were involved as urban design consultants in Britain and in the Commonwealth. They were contrasting yet complementary personalities: Matthew imperturbable and quietly convincing, Johnson-Marshall excitable and earnest, with the fervour of a reforming prophet; but they shared a humane professional approach. Johnson-Marshall's heroic devotion to public service through architecture was recognised by his appointment to the Order of St Michael and St George.

In his introduction to Rebuilding Cities Mumford says: '(Johnson-Marshall's) sense of responsibility to his public mission goes beyond even the high tradition of the British Civil Service.' In his final years, Percy Johnson-Marshall's tireless crusading spirit inspired graduates in a wide range of planning studies.