Sunday, 24 November 2019

Britain was once a country which made and has now lost its old Prince of Architects, Ted Cullinan

Ted, who has died at the age of 88, was born Edward Horder Cullinan, into an upper middle class family in Islington, London in the summer of 1931 and brought up in a house in Nash Terrace in Regents Park.
It is surprising that architecture rather than medicine was to be his chosen profession, since his mother, Joy, was the daughter of Lord Horder, who was the personal physician to King George VI and his father, Edward, worked as Horder's house physician in the departments of venereology and dermatology at St Bart's Hospital in London. In addition his father's father, who had been born in County Clare in Ireland also had a medical practice in Kensington.

With both parents catholic in religion, Ted and his two brothers and sister were brought up within that religious framework, but in his early years, his mother was clearly the formative secular influence in his life. Before marriage, she had studied and won a Gold Medal at the Slade School of Fine Art and he remembered her as a "great modernist who was quite convinced of the value of modern architecture, modern design and the future."

Later, it was she who encouraged him to paint and write poetry and it was her choice to have Alvar Alto furniture in the nursery and take him to the Penguin Pool at London Zoo designed by Berthold Lubetkin. Ted recalled that he : "adored it. Its one of the easiest things to love that there is."

He saw less of his father, but recalled that "a lovely thing about my father was that he was a member of the Inner Magic Circle" and was a "great conjurer. That was a great passion of his and he used to conjure in children's shows and for his patients. He was also passionate about making things and photography." He was also passionate about family holidays canal boating and owned a boat on the River Thames which Ted painted in traditional manner with "roses and castles and other decorations."

The other influence on him was his Mother's youngest brother, Mervyn Horder and he remembered a journey, when he was 5 or 6, with Mervyn driving his Grandfather's Rolls Royce down the Kingston Byepass to his country residence in Ashford Chase in Hampshire and "as we passed all the new houses he would point to them and say pseudo-tudor,  neo-Georgian, ultra modern." Mervyn would then insist that he repeated them back to him.

Uncle Mervyn, who was just twenty years older than Ted, was determined that he should follow in the footsteps of Mervyn's cousin, the Arts and Crafts architect, Percy Morley Horder and not become a doctor. Morley was the architect who designed Nottingham University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and even a house for the then PM Lloyd George.

Ted recalled in 2010 that Mervyn "did a great deal of indoctrination on me when I was young in the thirties and although, until I was about five, I wanted to be a deep sea diver, after that I wanted to be an architect. Never wanted to be anything else. So I looked at everything and I still do. Whenever I go to whatever despised suburb or slum, I look and I look and I look and I look and I'm incredibly interested in the way people do things well and the way they do them badly too."

He was eight years old when the Second World War broke out in 1939 and with the start of hostilities the following year he was evacuated with his mother and brothers and sisters to Canada. He would not see his father again until the War was over in 1946 and he was fifteen. His father stayed in Britain, joined the R.A.M.C, served in a General Hospital in the Canal Zone, Egypt, and later in another near Alexandria and at Sidon, before going to East Africa Command as a brigadier. It was here he became friends with politicians who would govern after independence and was a great friend of Julius Nyerere.

In the summer of 1942, when he was 11 years old and on holiday on Lake Magog in Canada, he built a waterside hut for his 10 year old girlfriend in the shape of an igloo which he could stand up in : "I built a house for my girlfriend there. I built a house out of stone for my girlfriend Shirley Parker and when she moved in I asked her to marry me and she said "no". I guess it was my first building."

In 1943, at the age of 12, he left Montreal with his younger brother and was taken across the Atlantic on a month's voyage on the SS Duchess of Richmond by the Royal Navy on a zig-zag course, via the Azores and in the company of the ship's plumbers.
Then, after a stay at his Grandfather's house in Hampshire, made his way with his brother at night, though the pitch black of the wartime blackout, to North Yorkshire to their new home as boarders at the catholic independent school for boys, Ampleforth College run by Benedictine monks.

He was not happy at Ampleforth, but found that being a hooker in the rugby team brought him a little kudos and justified "doing wet thing like being in the art room drawing."  On his own admission he was "hopeless" at his school work, so much so, that he had to repeat the fourth year.
However, he was made the school's 'lake monitor' and placed in charge of its boats and supervised the boys to build a boat house complete with concrete base and Nissan hut body and "put hours and hours and hours into it. I went on at it until it was done" and "it was such fun." In addition, at the age of 15, during school holidays began to build a brick house by a stream in the garden of his grandfather's house at Ashford Chase.

When he was 16, Uncle Mervyn took him on two week long, summer car trips in his citroen bif six, with the painter John Piper to East Anglia with a visit to Stowe House. He watched Piper paint : "I just gawped and gawped" at his ability to draw and paint on the same spot and recalled that "it influenced me terrifically" and it "completely changed the way I painted." When he returned to Ampleforth the monk who taught him art said : "I suppose you'd better paint like John Piper and get it out of your system. So I did."

When he was 18, he won a scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge, based on his entrance exam drawing of a Georgian fireplace and his essay on Victorian theatre which he "made up completely out of my head because I had no real knowledge of Victorian theatre, but I I knew to write how flamboyant and disgracefully unfunctional they were because Victorian architecture wasn't loved in the 40s and 50s. It was a kind of Betjeman discovery. So I wrote a really insulting essay on Victorian architecture."

Before his undergraduate studies he had to undertake his two years national service in the Army in the Royal Engineers where he considered himself to be "pretty hopeless" but was eventually made a second lieutenant because "if you'd been to public school and you had a posh accent it would have been completely disgraceful not to have been made an officer." When he came out of the Army his father, a traditional conservative, regarded him "as hopelessly socialist" and asked him " "Can't you join the Liberal Party ?" He thought I was a silly, privileged boy."

At the age of 20 in 1951 he started his degree at Cambridge in the school of architecture, where his tutor made him read 'Vers une Architecture' by Le Corbusier on day one. Cambridge also gave him the opportunity to visit and "salivate over Le Corbusier’s Unité at Marseilles and the lovely hairy Maisons Jaoul."

When recalling these years, in 2010, he said it was his visit to Durham Cathedral which made a major impact on him : "I think it's the most thrilling building in Europe. Totally astonishing building. This great rock of vast Romanesque column that have zig-zag decorations in them, but look as if they were done with someone with a black and dekker power tool."
Westminster Cathedral, which he revisited to admire the work of Bentley's brick arches and vaults, having been there as a boy, gave him a similar emotional response and left him feeling "silenced."

In his second year at Cambridge he started work on the Belle Toute Lighthouse his parents had bought on the cliff at Beachy Head, which had been badly damaged by the Army using it for target practice during the War and working with friends from Cambridge and later the Architect Association he recalled : "That was the first substantial building that I ever started work on physically and designing it." He had a free hand and said there were "no listings, no English Heritage in those days so I could do what I liked." Unfortunately the asbestos revealed in demolition left him with life long asthma.

He explained, with perfect self-effacement, that gaining his first class degree at Cambridge, which involved a six hour exam designing a whole building : "I've always been able to imagine the dimensions of a building and I have some skill in drawing" and : "That was not hard for me because all my life I've loved looking at things. That's all you have to do for the history of architecture. You look at things and consider them and read a bit and consider the the three dimensions and the way they occupy space and sit in the world."

Having graduated from Cambridge in 1954 he enrolled for two years study at the Architecture Association and before he started his second year he bicycled across Northern France to visit Corbusier's 'Notre Dame du Haut' at Ronchamp.
He recalled : "I've never been so moved by any piece of architecture in my life ever. The fact of its sculptural exterior and the sheer feeling of ecstatic light in its interior. It was beyond belief to me. I didn't know that architecture could achieve this level of sophistication and profundity and feeling." 

It was in his fourth year at the Association that he finished work on the Belle Tout Lighthouse and had been deeply affected by the experience : "The way materials go together. The way things are put on top of each other. It's a wonderful process. It's statics and dynamics. It's something that absolutely delights me." He linked this with his experience at Ronchamp : "The quality of outside and inside, I feel that physically. It's a very powerful feeling that I have. I can feel my body in places, like how its occupying ? How near to the edge it is ? I think any good architect could do that."

On completing his studies and having won a George VI Memorial scholarship to study in the USA, he now took himself off to the University of California, Berkley, where he had a "completely wonderful time : Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, hash, reading Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and it was as if the world was being reinvented as far as I was concerned. It was an amazing period. 1956-57. Northern California." 

He wasn't impressed by the School of Architecture at the University, but he used his time to design the Marvin House for private clients.

For transport he bought himself car and he "had to have a 1949 Ford V8, because it was the first car that didn't have imitation wings pressed into its sides, but was just a three box car and I loved that for its simple detailing... but far more because it was the car James Dean drove in 'Rebel without a Cause.' " Meanwhile, back home in Britain, during the Suez Crisis, he had been called up for National Service for the country's imperial venture in Egypt, but like many other young men, he simply ignored it.

On his return to Britain in 1960 and finished the Horder House in Hampshire,
praised as 'an idiosyncratically English version of the glass-box-in-the-wood, which he had designed for Uncle Mervyn having virtually self-built it with the help of a retired gardener in the same way that he was to design and build his own house in Camden Mews in N.W. London, a few years later.

He now he secured a job working four days a week in the office of Denys Lasdun who he'd met at the AA. The other day was reserved for his own work since, as he recalled, he had "always imagined myself as an architect in my own right." One of the first projects Denys got him to work on was the design and build of the student rooms of the new University of East Anglia with their ziggurat formation.
Apparently he was assigned this part of the project because Denys said : "Because I was wet behind the ears and only just not a student myself, so I might know what they needed.""

Dennis could be difficult to work for, but Ted said the he "loved and admired Denis more than any other architect. All the difficulties could be overlooked." In 1965 at the age of 34 his next project was to be the first he did on his own in independent practice. Dennis passed the Minster Lovell Conference Centre and the Law House which involved the conversion of existing manor house for use by developmental sciences to him. He confessed that it was "very hard work" using concrete masonry on the inside and dressed stone on the outside and he "concocted a series of building bolted together timber, in fact English larch, because I love using pieces of wood without housing them and turning into rot inviting." He also extended the existing building of the manor house across the landscape to make study bedrooms and the project won European World Heritage Prize.

In the succeedings year Ted's co-operative, 'Edward Cullinan Architects' gave Britain a series of inspirational buildings like :

Olivetti branch offices in Belfast, Derby, Dundee and Carlisle in 1972

Charles Cryer Theatre, Carshalton in 1991
                                                   Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre in 1992

The Weald and Downland Gridshell in 2002

Centre for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge 2003
Fitzwilliam College Library in Cambridge in 2010

In addition to his work as an architect, Ted was an inspirational teacher who first taught at Cambridge University in 1965/66 and subsequently at The Bartlett, Sheffield University, MIT and the University of Edinburgh.
In 2008, when he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in recognition of his 'Inspirational practice and teaching' the RIBA President Sunand Prasad said : "He is also known for being one of the great teachers of our times, and hundreds of students continue to be inspired by his enthusiasm, energy and deep insights into architecture."

Ted himself said of teaching : "My view with students is if you're going to suggest they do things in a certain way you had better have done things in a certain way that's bloody good, otherwise, if I was to speak they wouldn't listen to me. You can't propose to other people that they listen to you unless they listen to what they see."

On his death the present RIBA President, Alan Jones said : "Archtecture has lost a pioneer. Ted will be sorely missed and fondly remembered for the incredible contribution he made to archtecture and society. Not only did Ted shape our landscape - leaving behind dozens of ground-breaking buildings, but he inspired the next generation as one of the great teachers of our time, inspiring thousands of students and colleauges with his enthusiasm, energy and boundless knowledge."

Ted, in his work successfully achieved his aspiration to imitate :
"Two buildings that are very profound and incredibly complex and at the same time incredibly easy to love : the Penguin Pool and Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamps which is unbelievable lovable by informed people and uninformed people."

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