Obituary: Rodney Thomas

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The Independent Online
In another country, perhaps France or America, Rodney Thomas would have been better known, and properly honoured. Sadly, in Britain, his unique talents as a creative thinker, as a visionary and dreamer, above all as a research architect, have been largely ignored. The last exhibition devoted to his work was in 1967, and though it was widely praised at the time, since then his reputation has gradually faded, only kept alive by a devoted band of friends and admirers. It is to be hoped that the long-awaited publication of his memoirs will help to rekindle interest in one of the most versatile and inventive architectual minds of a generation.

Rodney Thomas was born in 1902 into a family of architects. His father, Ernest Montague Thomas, was soon to be appointed consulting architect to the government in Madras, and the family duly emigrated. Memories of Thomas's early years in India resurfaced towards the end of his life in colourful paintings of forests and birds of a jewel-like brilliance. When he came to the age to be formally educated, Rod was sent back to England where he did not shine academically. After the tragically early deaths of his parents, he was taken up by his architect uncle, Sir Brumwell Thomas, and sent to Eton. Brum, as Rod called him, was a highly successful architect, already knighted for services to town halls (John Betjeman much admired his Belfast City Hall), who kept a wonderfully eccentric salon in Albany. To this came a varied assortment of writers and musicians, among them Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and Marie Corelli.

Brum dissuaded Rod from becoming the painter he wished to be, maintaining - ironically in the circumstances - that architects stood a better chance of employment. Thomas was put to study architecture at London University, but spent more time drawing and painting at the Slade nearby. He also attended the Byam Shaw School of Art and the sculptor Leon Underwood's private school in Hammersmith, west London, where he met Henry Moore and the future Surrealist Eileen Agar, who was to become a lifelong friend.

In 1923 Thomas travelled with Underwood and the wood engraver Blair Hughes- Stanton to Iceland, an unusual trip for the period. Indeed Rod Thomas's pre-war activities were blithely diverse: he work-ed with his uncle and with the architects Giles Gilbert Scott, Louis de Soissons and Grey Wornum; he did interior decoration for Eileen Agar (all chic curves; some of the studio and living area furniture is now in the V&A) and for the graphic designer Ashley Havinden; he worked for Crawfords Advertising Agency and the Southern Railway, and arranged the window displays for Simpsons in Piccadilly; he also designed exhibition dis-plays and showrooms for Ascot Heaters.

Until 1939, Thomas had his own architectural and design practice. After some hilarious episodes in the Home Guard, at the end of the Second World War Thomas helped to found the Arcon group, with Edric Neale, Raglan Squire (Sir Jack's son), and Jim Gear. This partnership was intended to cope with the massive demand for temporary housing: Thomas was the mastermind behind the Mark V prefabricated house, 40,000 of which were built - some of them still lived in and loved to this day.

The success of this project encouraged Thomas to set up a research unit to investigate the further possibilties of technical collaboration between architects and industry. ICI, United Steel and Taylor Woodrow were among the companies involved. Thomas ran a totally informal atelier in Seymour Walk, Chelsea, attended by artists such as Elisabeth Frink and Lynn Chadwick (who always credits Thomas with inspiring his early mobiles), and young engineers and architects who worked on realising Thomas's ideas.

Plans for building and equipping overseas housing were drawn up for the ill-fated Ground-Nut Scheme in Tanganyika in 1949. The drawings for a town to be cut out of the jungle are beautiful, the furniture prototypes spare, elegant and practical. Typically the scheme foundered, but in the same year, 1951, Thomas saw his design for the Festival of Britain's Transport Pavilion erected on the South Bank to great acclaim. An ultra-modern building (Thomas admired Le Corbusier), its great sloping front wall of glass displayed aeroplanes hung from the ceiling and locomotives on the floor.

The work of Thomas's research team went on, investigating the problems of joining prefabricated units. This may sound dull, but if you can successfully join standard units, no two of which are ever identical (like the bricklayer "equalling" his bricks with mortar), you've solved the basic problem of prefabrication. Thomas's real discoveries in this area never caught on.

Rod Thomas was a modest man, but he did not think modestly. His experience was wide and he drew inspiration from painting and from the natural world, and by bringing to bear his own brand of imaginative sympathy on today's environmental problems, he produced guidelines for a more integrated future.

His last great project was for a sky city, the ideas for which he developed from the 1950s onwards. His plan was to build upwards organically on the spiral, basing his designs on the way lupin blossoms are arranged around the flower's stem. The idea was to take the earth up with you into the sky, in the shape of gardens and piazzas, and to dwell in perpetual sunlight. It was a dream, but a good dream, and sustained him through years of little architectual work, a lot of teaching and consistent drawing and painting.

Thomas helped his third wife, the poet Joan Thomas, to arrange poetry readings in a studio which had once been a part of Sir Thomas More's stable block. Such assorted luminaries as Laurie Lee and Edward Lucie-Smith came to read. Thomas continued to paint even when his sight was almost gone, devising new ways of drawing by touch and of differentiating colours. He lived a full life, and if many of his projects were unrealised (innovative designs for Coventry Cathedral, the Royal College of Arts and for a canopy over a reclining Buddha), he was undaunted, retaining till the end in the title words of his autobiography - A Sense of Wonder.

Andrew Lambirth

Rodney Meredith Thomas, painter and architect: born London 4 May 1902; married three times (two sons, one daughter); died London 26 April 1996.