Obituary: Sir Anthony Cox
Monday 11 January 1993
IN 1939 Anthony Cox was one of the 11 original founding partners of the Architects' Co-operative Partnership. ACP, as it soon came to be known, was made up of graduates from the AA School of Architecture, in London. It was loosely modelled on Berthold Lubetkin's Tecton Group which a few years earlier had attracted a number of talented and idealistic AA graduates into the private-practice sector.
However, with war imminent, the embryonic ACP hardly got off the ground before most of its partners found themselves in uniform. Tony Cox served in the Royal Engineers, firstly in Europe - where as an RE Captain he helped restore water supplies to Brussels in 1944 - before completing his service in India.
After demobilisation, Cox spent a couple of years engaged on the Hertfordshire County Council Architects' Department's progressive schools programme before rejoining his former colleagues (reduced to seven, including himself, after the war) in offices in Gordon Square, London, in 1947.
By that time, ACP's first immportant commission had begun shaping up. A modern rubber manufacturing plant was planned for a new post-war development zone in Brynmawr, near Abergavenny, for a subsidiary of the Enfield Cable Company. This firm, under the chairmanship of the visionary industrialist Lord Forrester had employed two of the non-combatant ACP partners during the war years and as soon as two further partners were available after the war they were also engaged by Forrester to develop the design of the factory. Such an arrangement as this allowed the project to appear under the partnership's name before the project was transferred to their new offices.
The Brynmawr Factory is undoubtedly ACP's best-known building. Brilliantly conceived, it was a remarkable example of technical and design progress with its thin concrete shallow-domed umbrella roofs, its pioneering structural servicing 'trees' and underfloor services. When opened it received enormous international coverage.
Today its present state of dereliction belies the fact that it was one of the first post- war buildings in Britain to be listed. But now it no longer serves any useful purpose. At Brynmawr, Cox was responsible for the entrance pavilion with its Festival of Britain design overtones. He was immensely proud of the building and its history. He often recounted the story of Frank Lloyd Wright's visit to it recalling not only that the great man urinated up one of the columns but found it somewhat disappointing. It was clearly too Corbusian.
Although Cox had been largely responsible for editing Wright's Organic Architecture lectures given at the RIBA in 1939 during the time he acted as Editorial Assistant to Edward 'Bobby' Carter's RIBA Journal, he later confessed that he felt the Grand Old Man's views on architecture were not 'Modern' in Le Corbusier's revolutionary sense.
ACP's ideological position in architecture was based firmly on Le Corbusier's pre-war Modernist tenets. Almost all the partners, and Cox was no exception, taught at the AA School on a part-time basis. In 1962-63 Cox served as the Association's President.
Cox was a good and thoughtful teacher who conveyed an air of practical reality coupled with didactic purpose. Such a commitment to practical polemics among the socialist idealists of the AA at that time was, to say the least, rather unusual. But ACP came as near as any firm to establishing a technologically and socially progressive architectural base in pragmatic post-war Britain. In a sense they were the private counterpart to the LLC Architect's Department and the County consortia. Their major strength lay in a commitment to research, particularly in relation to new and developing building types such as schools, colleges and universities, specialist hospital units and science buildings. This specialisation led eventually to prison commissions and health-care buildings, a subject on which Cox with his ACP partner Philip Groves was to provide a definitive appraisal in Design for Health Care (1981).
The analytical nature of architectural practice clearly appealed to Cox who in almost 40 years was responsible for some 60 projects. The practice was research-based although at the time much of the empirical knowledge and experience gained was seen as an essential part of the design process.
Cox's projects for ACP range from a number of early schools in the mid-Fifties onwards in the Coventry area, the Chemistry Department's Teaching and Research Building at Leicester University (1957) to a number of structures at the Maudsley Hospital including the Institute of Psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s, and the hostel and auditorium (now the Greenwood Theatre) at Guy's Hospital (1969), in London. One scheme that he designed but did not build in the mid-Seventies was a low-tech non- air-conditioned four-storey hospital in Khartoum which was quite unlike the highly serviced and sophisticated buildings that ACP had begun to carry out in Saudi Arabia. His partner Michael Grice recalls it as being a project that Cox, the thoughtful and practical idealist, was particularly proud of.
To the immediate post-war generations of architects, Cox will perhaps be best remembered as one of the profession's intellectuals who, in the late Thirties, when editor of the highly influential student journal Focus (four issues), criticised Berthold Lubetkin for his romantically classic approach in the designs for the entrance to the Highpoint 2 flats in Highgate, north London. Although in hindsight it now appears to have been a rather insubstantial argument that lacked an understanding of European architectural commitments, it set a tone and a standard for the critical debates that were to follow. To have influenced so many for so long is no mean achievement.
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