Sir Bernard Feilden: Dynamic architect who led the post-war conservation of British cathedrals

Thursday 20 November 2008 01:00 GMT

Bernard Feilden was an outstanding leader in the post-war conservation movement. St Paul's Cathedral, St Giles' High Kirk in Edinburgh, York Minster and Norwich Cathedral, all complex buildings, owe their continuing power to inspire in part to the courage and skill of Feilden and his partners in the firm he created, Feilden and Mawson of Norwich, London and Cambridge.

Always alert to take expert advice, he drew in M. Bertrand Monnet, of Chartres and Strasbourg, to save the endangered spire of Norwich, and Ove Arup to secure foundations ingeniously inserted under the 16,000-ton central tower at York. In 1977 he became Director of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), in Rome, and even after his retirement he continued his world tours giving advice on outstanding buildings in Europe, Asia and America.

There was a dynamism about Feilden's leadership rare in the world of ecclesiastical conservation. He excused his late arrival at a meeting of York Minster Chapter by explaining that the tides were adverse as he sailed his inflatable dinghy from the north Norfolk coast. His engineering skill in driving a vital fire-lift through the Wren staircase to reach the Whispering Gallery at St Paul's might lead to raised eyebrows in today's heritage world, but has certainly saved lives. When he lost his left eye in a shooting accident, he used the compensation to capitalise his firm. To surmount objections to his new Wessex Hotel at Winchester, a group of his supporters secured a special Act of Parliament.

Feilden felt that cathedrals require a response today as courageous as that which the architects, workmen, citizens and church people had shown when their dreams rose to the skies in stone. He did not hesitate to say (to meet the criticism of purist conservationists): "The cathedral gives the orders". By that he meant using the most modern methods, as the first builders had used the latest techniques of their day.

Bernard Melchior Feilden was born in Hampstead, London in 1919 to a family proud of its public service. His mother was descended from engineers and architects, including the chief architect of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. His father, who won an MC in France during the First World War, later ran a ranch in British Columbia where Feilden received the scar on his face from his twin brother, who was careless with a pickaxe.

Feilden was sent to Bedford School, where in those days he found the same ethos as in the units he joined before being commissioned with the Bengal Sappers. His Second World War service took him to India, Mesopotamia and Italy and gave him campaigning enthusiasm which enabled him to win confidence among others with leadership roles. When he set up his first office in the Close in Norwich, he rapidly made friends in the community, as a leading member of the Norwich Society, the Norfolk Club, a Mason, a fisherman, sailor and painter.

Feilden described his style as "moderate modernism". He shone as team leader of Feilden and Mawson, which became in the Sixties the largest architectural firm in East Anglia; he left much of the designing to his colleagues. The firm built hotels in Cambridge, Winchester, worked for schools at St Paul's in London, Bedford, Gresham's and Norwich and for the universities of York and East Anglia (taking over at the latter from Denys Lasdun in 1969). Feilden personally designed the elegant United Reformed Church in Norwich, and the firm worked on enlargements at the May and Baker chemical factory in Norfolk, as well as caring for 250 medieval churches and producing a conservation plan for Chesterfield in Derbyshire.

But it was for his work at British cathedrals that he will be remembered. At Norwich after the Baedeker raids of April 1942, all the roofs needed restoration and the spire was in such danger of collapse that one recommendation was that it should be demolished and rebuilt. At York and St Paul's there was serious subsidence and in Edinburgh, the High Kirk of St Giles needed an entirely new floor. In every case Feilden's work, though controversial, has left these buildings a delight – as well as safe and secure.

He always insisted on archaeological digs despite occasional protests from clients anxious about the cost. He never closed the buildings while the work was in progress and, especially at Norwich and York, maintained happy relationships with contractors and workmen. His skill in lighting and treating the surface of stone and mosaics was imaginative but restrained. Norwich's spire strengthened by concealed steel wire, York's exposed foundations carrying the tremendous tower and the west-end trumpets at St Paul's were among his most imaginative solutions to complex problems. For his cathedral work and his world conservation advice from Rome he was knighted in 1985.

The depression in architectural work in the mid-Seventies led Feilden to retire from active control of his firm. He and his brothers restored the Elizabethan Stiffkey Old Hall, on the north Norfolk coast, with its five flint and stone towers and terraced gardens, creating four homes for the family. He continued to travel and sail and in 1982 published the major guide Conservation of Historic Buildings. He also served on the Cathedrals Advisory Commission for England. In 1986 he was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for his restoration work on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Feilden had been a great leader of his firm (with office outings and even its own croquet rules); he trained 15 architects, now principals of their own practices. And he created confidence among those responsible for cathedrals that they can be preserved at the highest standards for the good of the community around them.

Alan Webster

Bernard Melchoir Feilden, conservation architect: born London 11 September 1919; Partner, Feilden and Mawson 1956-77, consultant 1977-2008; Architect, Norwich Cathedral 1963-77; Surveyor to the Fabric, York Minister 1965-77; Surveyor to the Fabric, St Paul's Cathedral 1969-77; Consultant Architect, University of East Anglia 1969-77; OBE 1969, CBE 1976; Hoffman Wood Professor of Architecture, Leeds University 1973-74; president, Ecclesiastical Architects' and Surveyors' Association 1975-77; president, Guild of Surveyors 1976-77; Director, International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome 1977-81; Member, Cathedrals Advisory Commission for England 1981-90; Kt 1985; married 1949 Ruth Bainbridge (died 1994; two sons, two daughters), 1995 Tina Murdoch; died Bawburgh, Norfolk 14 November 2008.

Alan Webster died 3 September 2007

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