Obituary: Professor Theo Crosby
Thursday 15 September 1994
THEO CROSBY was one of the most influential and creative figures of his generation in design and architecture. He was one of the founders in 1972 of the design practice Pentagram, an author, editor and sculptor, and latterly the driving force with the late Sam Wanamaker behind the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, in Southwark, south London. In his 40-year career Crosby's chief aim was to find a visual vocabulary for the built environment that was both of a fine quality and appropriate to the modern era.
Crosby and I both came to Europe from South Africa in the early 1950s (dissidents from apartheid), became friends and remained so ever since - 'bros' to use his endearing word. We both studied architecture in South Africa, he at 'Wits Joburg' (Witwatersrand University Johannesburg) and I at Durban (Natal University) and we both also went more or less straight into journalism on arriving in Britain.
Crosby teamed up (as technical editor) with our mutual friend Monica Pidgeon, editor of what was originally called Architectural Design and Construction - then a 'freebie' published by the Architect's Standard Catologue. Together, they turned the magazine into the finest modern art/architecture monthly of its day. With Crosby's brilliantly coloured, imaginative, provocative covers the magazine became AD and circulation rocketed as a generation of people with new ideas packed themselves into its visually demanding and information jammed pages.
From the mid-Fifties to the mid-Seventies so much new theory, new thought, new proposals, new techniques, new imagery and graphics appeared for the first time in the pages of AD, including the early work of James Stirling, Philip Dowson, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and the Ove Arup structural engineering group. By being in AD one was numbered among the elite of the world of the man-made environment. By the time I came along (as AD's news editor) this opinion-forming publication was an established force on the international stage.
Crosby's reputation as an architect-designer-artist grew. As he moved away from AD towards his own creative independent agency he took up the cause, for instance, of the Archigram team, in London, whose marvellously creative ideas for new living-forms set off an important design movement based on expendable, changing, buildings with 'self-moving, plug-in' components. The logical conclusion of their ideas was the high-tech of Rogers's Pompidou Centre in Paris, completed in 1977.
In 1949 Crosby had joined Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew and Denys Lasdun in their polyglot powerhouse modern-architecture office in Gloucester Place, London, which was a trampoline for so many young talented post-war architects. Crosby was dogged, working long hours, almost unceasingly, but without desire for personal gain (although some inevitably accrued) through these years.
Crosby proved his commitment to new thinking by his forceful, energetic 'mother-henning' of the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in London, in 1956. This brought together a motley crew of 'angry young people' which included the architects Alison and Peter Smithson and Sandy (now Sir Colin) Wilson, the assemblage sculptor Eduardo (now Sir Eduardo) Paolozzi, the action painter Magda Cordell, the sculptor Bill Turnbull, and the pop artist Richard Hamilton. It was a marvellous 'rag-bag' of new thought and the cradle of the Independent Group of architect-designer-artists who became icons of the Sixties.
Crosby teamed up in 1964 with the graphic designers Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Bob Gill, and Crosby Fletcher Forbes Gill came into being. Its belief 'that big companies would be more interested in dealing with organisations than with individuals' proved correct. They were joined by the leading British industrial designer Kenneth Grange and others, and CFFG became Pentagram in 1972. The practice is based in Notting Hill, London, in an old warehouse/printing works, which they converted. It has an annual turnover of about pounds 10m and straddles the world with offices in New York and San Francisco. Its list of 'big-name' clients includes Kenwood, Kodak, Penguin Books, Marks & Spencer, BP, British Rail and British Airways.
Crosby headed the architecture team within Pentagram whose 1978 manifesto led with the partners' ethos that: 'Design means the efficient achievement of planned purposes and the artefacts which are the end results . . . design can fulfil both a social and an economic purpose.' Crosby's interior designs include the British headquarters of Unilever, and his contribution to the public spaces of the NMB headquarters in Amsterdam, in 1987.
Despite his emphatic drive and involvement, no major building project of Crosby's has yet been finished. And yet in 1988 he produced one of the most ambitious of all his schemes: a 500ft monument to the Battle of Britain to be built on the south bank of the Thames near Surrey Docks. It was conceived with Pedro Guedes, then one of Crosby's colleagues at Pentagram, and the sculptor Michael Sandle. In the design, a hollow pyramid forms the base, containing laser-generated holograms and sounds recalling the Blitz. On its top are mounted sculptures of a Heinkel bomber crashing and a Spitfire.
Apart from his artworks, and collaborations with other artists, Crosby produced a breathtaking volume of words and pictures in books, magazines and catalogues. So much of what he did was voluntary, unpaid, and with a low-profile commitment to excellence and getting a job done properly, professionally.
For someone who was so admired in his profession, he was astonishingly modest. It was this 'shyness' which often made him seem abrupt. So he disguised it in what seemed to be a 'spiky' manner while a seemingly hard shell enveloped a generous and kindly core. No one will ever know how many aspiring artists he helped when he was in positions of influence. I, like many others, was a recipient of his tangible help.
In the mid-Sixties I had found Anne Buchanan, his first wife, an old cottage in a field by Faringdon, in Berkshire, which Theo beautifully fixed up, mostly in wood, with the local carpenter-coffin maker. It did not last. He claimed, later, that he 'hated the country . . . its silence . . . I'm suspicious of cows.' He was a thoroughly metropolitan being. 'You know I never go anywhere,' he wrote me recently when invited to Sussex.
He was always so busy during the week in London and weekends were sacrosanct. He needed those precious hours to go and sculpt in the atelier in Heneage Street, Spitalfields, which was part of his London home with his second wife, Polly Hope.
Since suffering an aneurism in February this year, he had concentrated on finishing work on the Globe Theatre. This he and Sam Wanamaker created in fits and starts as money dribbled in. It was Crosby who gave Wanamaker's dream architectural expression, in which he insisted only on natural materials and high-quality craftsmanship. Man-made materials were banned from the site. The Globe is no longer just an idea; this real Shakespearean edifice, it is to be hoped, will be completed and become the monument which Theo Crosby craved in recent years. I only lately came to understand why he was so passionate about this project.
His letters were generally very short, to the point. But in the longest letter I ever received from him, last April, he wrote, of the Globe auditorium 'It is now in place and looks wonderful, you would love the great oak timbers and the complex joints . . .'
A Globe Theatre created within Crosby's vision would be a living embodiment of the proposals of the Art and Architecture Society (A & A), which he and I helped to found at the ICA in February 1982. The society put the subject of the collaboration on the building site between artists and architects on the political and economic agenda, with the whole question being taken up by the Arts Council and the RIBA. And I now realise that in the Globe recreation Theo Crosby was celebrating the very union of the head and the hands, the marriage of art with the handmade, with craft which the A & A stands for.
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