Obituary: Ralph Tubbs

Ralph Tubbs was just 39 when he designed the Dome of Discovery as the centrepiece of the South Bank site of the 1951 Festival of Britain, a building that established his reputation and for which he would be famous for the rest of his life.

Affectionately known as "Ralph's Tub", it was the largest dome in the world at the time at 365ft in diameter - a dimen-sion chosen, he later remarked only half jokingly, because "it was easy to remember". Like all the other festival buildings (save the Festival Hall), however, it was demolished and sold for scrap soon afterwards by the incoming Conservative government of Sir Winston Churchill, which considered it a rump of Clement Attlee's socialist extravaganza.

Born in Hadley Wood, Hertfordshire, in 1912, the son of Sydney W. Tubbs, a chartered accountant, Ralph Tubbs was educated at Mill Hill School and the Architectural Association. A dedicated Modernist, he worked for Erno Goldfinger (twice, the first time unpaid for a year) and prepared the working drawings for 2 Willow Road, Hampstead, recently adopted by the National Trust and listed Grade II, and for three years for Maxwell Fry and Walter Gropius. In 1939 Tubbs became secretary of the highly influential MARS (Modern Architectural Research Group).

A lameness in one leg due to a sports injury in childhood prevented him from active service during the Second World War years, so he became a member of the "night watch" at St Paul's Cathedral and designed factories for war production. He also wrote two books for Penguin: Living in Cities (1942) and The Englishman Builds (1945), the former selling some 134,000 copies.

With Hugh Casson and Misha Black, Tubbs was jointly responsible for the overall planning and execution of the Festival of Britain site on the South Bank, and architect of the Dome which, along with his books aimed at the lay reader, established his professional reputation. "I never sought a client," he said later, as new commissions followed.

In London, these included Baden-Powell House for the Boy Scouts' Association, halls of residence for University College, a factory for Crown Wallpaper, Charing Cross Hospital and Medical School and the Indian Students' Union (the last was listed Grade II in March and his son Jonathan, an architect, is currently engaged in building an extension); residential areas at Harlow and Basildon new towns; the Granada TV Centre and Studios, in Manchester, and Jersey General Hospital, St Helier, in the Channel Islands. His practice, Ralph Tubbs Architect, founded in 1948, was restricted in size to no more than 26 assistants so that he could maintain personal control of every project and a one-to-one relationship with clients.

At the same time he was active as a member of the Council and Executive Committee of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) 1944-51; vice-president of the Architectural Association, 1945-47; and was the longest-serving committee member of the Architecture Club, for 42 years until 1994. In 1942 he became an associate of the Institute of Landscape Architects; and in 1952 a Fellow of the RIBA and an OBE. Tubbs's personal interest in insects and the natural world was reflected in his presidency of the Royal Entomological Society of London from 1982 to 1984.

As a practising architect he was always more of a "herbivore" than a "carnivore", too. He despised the New Brutalism that swept the country within a few years of the Festival of Britain, because it "brutalised people". What he relished about Modernism - "this new architecture" - was its concern for form and proportion, renewed delight in spatial sensation, precision, and alliance with nature.

It is ironic that Tubbs's death followed so soon after plans were unveiled for the dome for the Greenwich Millennium Festival. In his last interview, in the Architects' Journal, just two months ago, he expressed his support for the festival and its location, but was critical of its theme - time - as a lost opportunity, as it "eliminates all things, including us" rather than celebrating humanity's needs and achievements. He was especially (and uncharacteristically) vehement in expressing his opinions of several other Millennium projects (including the proposed Ferris wheel for London's South Bank) as "juvenile", "not clever", "gimmicks" and "expensive jokes". Hubris and Mammon had replaced the optimism and cheerfulness which were the hallmarks of the 1951 Festival.

Charles Knevitt

Ralph Tubbs, architect: born Hadley Wood, Hertfordshire 9 January 1912; married 1946 Mary Taberner (two sons, one daughter); died London 24 November 1996.

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

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines