Obituary: Ralph Tubbs

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The Independent Online
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.