Obituary: Bill Allen

Dennis Sharp
Wednesday 23 December 1998 00:02

BILL ALLEN was a polymath. He had a flair for finding relationships between science and design which set him in good stead for a wide and varied career.

Over the years he served as Chief Architect (and Deputy Head, Physics) of the Building Research Station, Garston (now the BR Establishment), Principal of the Architectural Association School, London (1961-66) and a founding partner in 1962 of the London-based architectural practice of Bickerdike, Allen & Partners which currently employs a staff of 50.

John Bickerdike (who died in 1982) and Allen complemented each other in the practice. Bickerdike's strength was that of the architect-designer while Allen's commitment to architecture, science and technology allowed for a wide range of commissions. Both worked closely together on the designs of the Royal College of Music, Manchester, and the Royal Academy of Music, London.

The Bickerdike Allen Partnership has become widely known as one of the leading-edge consultancies in the field of building defects, litigation and repairs. It specialises in the resolution of the design and constructional problems that affect modern buildings. It was however in the fields of acoustics, lighting, constructional technologies that Allen excelled, and he developed the consultancy's services in these specialist areas.

Architect, educator, lecturer, landscape painter and scientist manque, Bill Allen came from a distinguished family of Canadian academics. It was his father, a professor of physics at the University of Manitoba, who introduced his son into the "black art" (as Bill Allen called it) of acoustics. His brother is Emeritus Professor of Physics at St Andrews and his sister was both a photographer and an economics professor. In 1932, Allen began his career at the University of Manitoba's School of Architecture graduating in 1936 with the university's Gold Medal.

Forfeiting an opportunity to go to Harvard, he moved instead to England in 1936. Here he worked for Louis de Soisson in Welwyn Garden City, where he resided for the rest of his life and where he designed his family house. He lived for his work and his family and never stopped talking about either.

He was a good companion and a totally reliable source of information and good advice. His impish sense of humour and wonderful Canadian accent made him a great raconteur. He could liven up any discussion or even - as I experienced on many an occasion - a boring debate or a dull committee.

After his stint in de Soisson's office, he moved on to the Building Research Station, near Watford, as a building researcher. There in the post-war period he became deputy head of physics and led a BRS acoustics team in the design of the Royal Festival Hall. From 1954 to 1961 he was Chief Architect, BRS, before taking up the challenging post of Principal of the AA School, London, where he stayed until 1966 despite the school's avant-gardists' distrust of his scientific background. For some of them architecture and analytical science did not mix. For Bill Allen it was inextricable.

He encouraged the teaching of the principles of construction at the AA School, bringing in many of the building scientists he had worked with at BRS to give lectures, crits and seminars. His interest in science and technology was leavened by a genuine passion for architectural history and theory. A number of architectural historians and Modern Movement architect theorists came in - including myself - to broaden the basis of teaching in this area. He also encouraged the publication of research studies and technical theses.

A decade of so ago he changed from being a leading acoustics expert - after his own hearing failed - to become an expert in display lighting, particularly the lighting of museums, galleries and individual objects as his work at the National Gallery, Waddesdon Manor (for Jacob Rothschild) where he introduced pin-point fibre optics into display cabinets to highlight the object and obviate heat gain, the Divinity School, Oxford, the Frick Collection, New York, and the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, a job he was still working on the week before he died.

Bill Allen chaired or served countless committees and councils including the RIBA, of which he was a Vice-President, and the Institute of Acoustics, of which he was a joint founder. He received many honours including Commander of the Order of Merit, Portugal (for his work for the Gulbenkian Foundation), an Hon LLD from his own university (Manitoba), and honorary fellowships from the American and New Zealand Institutes of Architects.

But honours were not exactly his game. His game was work. This he pursued with intelligence, tremendous energy and boundless enthusiasm. He combined his huge interest in people, places and things with an acute awareness of the odd, strange and comic events in life, thus perfectly illustrating his friend Arthur Koestler's contention that such associations are the well of creativity. A former partner recalls that "the harshest criticism he made of an acquaintance of some 20 years was that he had never told Bill a joke!" Allen was never bored by office routine, but always encouraged those around him to achieve ingenious results of high quality, whether a report or a design.

Over the past few weeks Allen had lectured in the US and after returning home immediately went straight off to Lisbon to continue work on the third redesign of the layout of the Gulbenkian Museum. By all accounts, he came home exhausted and ended up in hospital in Welwyn Garden City.

At the age of 75, Allen had relinquished his partnership in the practice to become a consultant and to give himself the time to produce his book The Building Envelope (1997). It was no ordinary technical handbook, rather an extraordinary account of both a technical subject and a career. It was inspired and dedicated to his own mentor, R. Fitzmaurice of the BRE, the main author of Principles of Modern Building, the first volume of which was issued in 1939. It was Fitzmaurice who, as Allen explains, fuelled his own enthusiasm for a marriage between architecture and science. His book, with its autobiographical slant, is itself a record of this union.

William Alexander Allen, architect: born Winnipeg, Canada 29 June 1914; CBE 1980; married Tessa Pearson (two sons); died Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire 14 December 1998.

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