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Sunday, 28 February 2016

From Cambridge to Newcastle

After three years at Cambridge, I had to decide where to continue my studies in order to pass the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)  final examination to qualify as an architect. My tutor, Alex Hardy, had recommended the Durham University School of Architecture based in Newcastle upon Tyne (the two universities became separate entities in 1963). I had attended an interview earlier that year and was accepted to join the fourth year in Newcastle.

In the first few weeks I experienced a big change in my lifestyle. I had to live in digs in South Gosforth, a bus ride away from the university, and share a bed-sit with another chap who wasn't a student. The landlady was old and rather frail and the meals, though hot, were not particularly appetising. I was very impressed with the university itself: King's College and the central courtyard area consisted of buildings dating from the 19th century.

{I am proud to say that some twenty-odd years later I was to see my own son study at Newcastle University. To have had the opportunity to study at two universities and then have my two children attend each of them, is indeed fortunate}

The centre of Newcastle in 1957 was lively: plenty of pubs between the university precinct and the quayside. All the main streets had overhead electric power cables which had once been used to run trams but had been replaced by trolley buses. The jewels in the architectural crown were the classical streets created by architect John Dobson and builder Richard Grainger including Grey Street, Grainger Street, Market Street and Collingwood Street. This was 19th century town planning at its best, particularly the gentle sweep of Grey Street with the façade of the Theatre Royal.

The accommodation for fourth year architecture studies was a temporary block to the rear of the main buildings, known as 'the huts': pre-cast concrete-framed units similar to temporary classrooms. The lack of insulation meant that as soon as the heating was turned off, they rapidly became very cold in winter. It was therefore very difficult to work late in such conditions. However the atmosphere among the students was relaxed and friendly. Of course most of them had studied together for three years already. There were only two other newcomers: Ken Appleby who was returning to Newcastle after his National Service and Ralph Baldwin who had studied part-time and was now studying full-time in order to qualify.

The winter of 1957 soon progressed into the spring and summer of 1958 so it was possible to work in the studio longer into the evenings and the temptation grew to find some open air and exercise in the day. Ralph also had some rowing experience so we went out in a pair and towards the end of the summer even entered into the Durham University regatta on the River Wear. This was my only diversion and thankfully didn't encroach on my work.

My main design project at the end of the summer term was a Civic Centre for Carlisle. I remember the final weeks before the scheme had to be submitted - we were working well into the night in the hut and I decided not to shave until it was finished. It is the only time in my life that I have grown 'designer stubble'. We were kept awake every night with two long-playing records supplied by one of the students and they are firmly embedded in my memory. One was Frank Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers and the other was one by Ella Fitzgerald. My appreciation of popular music was influenced by these two performers even though they got on my nerves that final week!

On the Saturday morning, after submitting the scheme, I headed straight for the barber's and had a wet shave and haircut before going to the student's union for a well-earned hot meal.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A summer in Scandinavia - Sweden

The second week of my Scandinavian summer studying modern architecture was based in Sweden, taking the ferry from Copenhagen to Malmö.  We spent a couple of nights in a large modern sports hall which had been sub-divided into individual bed spaces by means of temporary screens to provide for itinerant students and tourists looking for cheap accommodation. The building itself was, again, ahead of its time with a wide span roof covering space for special courts for tennis, football, basketball etc (indoor sports arenas were unknown in this country for another 20 years). I can remember very clearly lying in my bed looking up at the vast ceiling peppered with circular roof lights and large sodium light fittings.

Gondolen restaurant Stockholm 1950s
Gondolen restaurant suspended
from footbridge.  StockholmPhoto 1956
Malmö provided us with many examples of new housing schemes with brightly coloured rendered walls and simple but superbly constructed timber windows. However it was Stockholm which provided the biggest surprise. it was like walking into the city of the future when compared to the UK at the time. Apart from many modern buildings the really impressive feature was its integrated public transport system and the effective segregation of pedestrian and vehicle circulation. We found student accommodation outside the city in a beautiful woodland setting constructed in high quality timber, similar to the traditional houses typical of suburban and country areas all over Scandinavia.

The overall impression of Sweden was one of cleanliness and orderliness. To some degree, as Sweden had declared itself neutral during World War II,  it escaped bombing and occupation unlike its neighbours Denmark and Norway. It was clear in the 1950s that relationships were, to say the least, strained. Much rebuilding was required after the war in occupied countries, notably Norway, because of the Nazis 'scorched earth' policy. Lack of funds in Norway compounded the problem. Sweden, on the other hand, was able to develop its economy unhindered.

Before returning home we travelled overland to Gothenburg. The accommodation was more traditional bed and breakfast but comfortable. We were left more on our own here but were still able to visit several new buildings in the outer areas including housing schemes similar to those in Denmark and elsewhere in Sweden.


Nockebyhov, Stockholm
Family terrace houses, Nockebyhov near Stockholm
Photo 1956


Götaplatsen, Gothenburg showing Museum of Art (1922) 
and Concert Hall (1935) Photo 1956



Ribershus Malmo
Ribershus 'housing estate' , Malmö (built 1937-1943)
Photo 1956.

Malmö Opera and Music Theatre (built 1933-1944)
Photo 1956



Thursday, 20 March 2014

A summer in Scandinavia - Copenhagen

Copenhagen radhus 1950s
Copenhagen's City Hall (Radhus) 1956
At the end of my second year at Cambridge I realised that the time I had spent rowing had taken its toll on my academic work. I had to retake one of my subjects in the September. My colleague at Emma, Walter Mildmay, also suffered the same fate so we agreed to devote more time to our architectural education.

Walter was a descendant of the founder of Emmanuel College and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Mildmay (1523 to 1589). I was invited to spend a couple of weeks at the family home in Stroud, Gloucestershire. His father was a local school master and they lived in a modest stone built house in the countryside. Walter had a younger brother who was destined to go to Emmanuel in a couple of years. He was a very lively individual whom I imagined would make full use of the opportunities at Cambridge. Although the family were linked to the aristocracy, they were by no means rich, however the social graces were evident in their way of life and standard of behaviour.

That same summer of 1956 Walter and I arranged to visit Scandinavia to study modern architecture. By using the Student's Union network we were able to arrange some travel and accommodation in advance. I had already decided to study multi-storey housing for my written thesis and high rise dwelling was very common in Scandinavian countries.

We were lucky enough to cadge a long lift from my sister Betty's boyfriend at the time, Peter Gosling, who was travelling through Germany with a friend. He took us by car from Peterborough, across into France, through Belgium and Holland into Germany and up to the ferry terminal at Grossenbrode for our trip across to Gedsar in Denmark. From there we made our way to Copenhagen by train.

We spent three weeks in Scandinavia, the first week in and around Copenhagen. We were put in contact with the chairman of their architectural students association who was most helpful in guiding us to building projects of note as well as inviting us to his home for a meal with his young family.

town hall rodovre 1950s
Detail of Town Hall in Rødovre
I was impressed by the clean, efficient lines of Danish design. The layout of homes and quality of fittings, particularly joinery, were the hallmarks of modern living whether in single or multi-storey dwellings. What we saw here in the mid-fifties was way ahead of architectural design in Britain. We visited a number of new buildings including the Town Hall in Rødovre designed in steel and glass by Denmark's most famous architect Arne Jacobsen.

We also visited a museum of modern art which was being constructed in the grounds of a 19th century house. It extended through various levels and directions, sweeping down towards the sea. [This is the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art which opened in 1958]

Copenhagen itself was a beautiful city. Many buildings of renaissance style were given a distinctly northern flavour with ornate spires and cupulas covered in copper which gave them a rich green colour. The general atmosphere was one of great friendliness and this was nowhere more apparent than in the famous Tivoli Gardens. There was a party atmosphere at any time of day with its many bars, restaurants and entertainment, plus a modern concert hall, newly built, overlooking the sea. After dark it was even more vibrant with a blaze of coloured lights turning it into a wonderland.

Nyhavn 1950s
Nyhavn, 1956

Amalienborg palace 1950s
Amalienborg Palace

Gefion Fountain 1950s
Gefion Fountain,


Saturday, 14 September 2013

Temporary jobs during my Cambridge days

My terms at Emmanuel were filled with studying and rowing though probably more of the latter than the former. During the vacations, particularly the long summer break, the world had to be faced and money had to be earned. Then, as now, the student population provided a pool of casual labour to the economy. Over a period of three years I had a variety of temporary jobs.

I worked on a farm near Cambridge at harvest time and lived in a local pub. Being a farm labourer was hard work with long hours starting very early in the morning which proved particularly difficult after drinking in the pub the following evening. The worst task I was asked to do was to burn a field of stubble armed only with a box of matches and a small tree branch. I had to start in one corner and work my way diagonally across the field, gently beating the flames to keep an even line. This was all very well until the line became longer and longer as I reached the centre. To make matters worse, the hedge surrounding the field caught fire and I had to beat it out with the branch as I kept the rest of it going. Eventually I was left with a small triangle of stubble which petered out, leaving me utterly exhausted.

Roy Lander and John Grinsell
Roy Lander and me
I also worked at a canning factory in Peterborough with my great friend from Emmanuel, Roy Lander. Roy had come to the UK to study from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was more used to factory work than me. Prior to the harvesting of peas, an army of students were employed to prepare the factory for the receipt of the harvest. I remember spending several days with Roy inside a large cylinder called a pea grader, armed with hand files to smooth down the inside edges of the holes which had been drilled through the outer surface of the drum to allow the smaller peas to fall through. Unless the inside surface was smooth, everything would come out as split peas. So much for the sophistication of the modern industrial process!

As a student of architecture, it was important for me to spend some time on a building site. The first spell was labouring on a local school building project where I had the tough job of unloading bags of cement. The bags were not only extremely heavy but very hot on my back. I did get the chance to use a dumper truck which I rather enjoyed until my knee got in the way of the bucket while tipping builder's rubble. I ended up with a large bruise and a stiff leg for a week so, although I learned little about building techniques, I became familiar with how to 'go on the sick' as a labourer.

At the end of my third year I spent a more profitable time with John Laing Construction in Birmingham on a large multi-storey housing project. I learned much about the problems of building management as I worked in the programming section of a large site office. My job was to inspect the individual dwellings each day to record progress under the various trade headings and stages e.g. carpenter, joiner, plasterer etc. This information was fed into a master progress chart to be set against the original programme. Any delays would immediately affect the building costs with implications for contract value and possible loss of profit. This experience prepared me for the realities of the building industry.


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Rowing at Cambridge - Thames Head of the River Race


1956 Emmanuel Boat Crew (second eight?).
John is front row, far left.

It was in the lower reaches of the river where I spent most of my time when I wasn't studying. Training usually involved long distance outings covering the length of the river from the boathouses down to the first lock before the river Cam joined the Great Ouse.  On one occasion the first two 'eights' even rowed beyond the lock and carried on down to Ely. The fields adjoining the river were partly flooded and we found ourselves rowing completely off course. We had to row all the way back the following day.

I was a regular member of the second college 'eight' in my first year and took part in national rowing events such as the Thames Head of the River race, which was traditionally rowed the week before the University Boat Race from Mortlake to Putney, and in a coxless four at Henley Royal Regatta. These are experiences I would never forget, not just for the physical exertion involved in both training and taking part, but for the comradeship and sheer fun of the events.

Before the Head of the River race in London we took part in a similar race in Reading the previous week. In the intervening days the two eights rowed downstream through Maidenhead, Henley, Slough and Windsor to Putney, going through several locks and enjoying the beautiful riverbanks of the upper Thames such as Cookham Reach and Teddington. We stayed overnight in Maidenhead and I recall arriving in the pouring rain at about 5 o'clock. The boathouse was adjacent to the main street and we were ordered to run straight to the hotel as soon as we had stored the boat. The sight of sixteen oarsmen and two coxes running down the busy street must have surprised the locals but was nothing compared to the shock of the guests in the hotel when we burst in, bedraggled and soaked-through in our rowing kit. One of our crew, a huge man of 6'6" and 16 stone, loudly requested a hot bath. His name was Bill Hunt, a law student, and I often think of him now as a successful lawyer, frightening the living daylights out of witnesses in court. 

We stayed a couple of nights in a London University hostel before the race on the Saturday. No fewer than 250 crews took part from all over the country so you can imagine the thrill of being involved. Each boat would have to paddle upstream to the starting point, turn round and at 30 second intervals start off back down to Putney, rowing for about 20 minutes to be timed at the finishing post. The fastest crew, usually the Leander Club in those days, would be declared Head of the River. 


1955 Thames Head of the River Race: Emmanuel coming into
the boathouses at Putney. 


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Rowing at Cambridge - the bumps and the stunts.

Rowing at Cambridge
The college and its activities formed the focus of my life. Because of my school interest in rowing I made a bee-line for the Boat Club at Emmanuel which was to be the centre of my interests for the next three years. Rowing, although demanding in time, was the perfect antidote for the architecture course which required many hours of studio work. Of all the sports in Cambridge, rowing attracted a wide variety of people: it was the focus of college pride and the social calendar of the university.

Each term produced events on the river which attracted the crowds. The first term, known as Michaelmas, produced the Fairbairn's Cup, named after Nicholas Fairbairn, a legendary oarsman who pioneered a style of rowing which challenged the established technique and influenced all later styles. It was a timed race involving a procession of boats starting from the college boathouses and finishing over 2 miles downstream from Cambridge.

The river is not wide enough to row side by side, so a form of race was devised many years ago known as the 'Bumps'. These are held in the second and third terms (Lent Races and May Races) and each college enters a number of crews competing in a number of divisions. The Bumps are rowed in the opposite direction to the Fairbairn's - boats have to paddle down from their boathouses to be positioned along the river bank, a few yards apart. On a given signal each boat is pushed out into the centre of the river and at the starting pistol as many as 15 crews set off in pursuit of the boat in front (although it's technically behind, as you row backwards!) The object of the exercise is to literally bump the next boat. When that happens the two boats involved stop rowing. There are four days of racing so the following day the two boats involved in the 'bump' swap places in the division.

rowing shield, 1957, Cambridge

Any crew which records four consecutive bumps is said to have 'gained their oars'. The prize for each rower is a full-size oar which he can keep: the blade would be decorated with the names of the full crew in gold lettering on the college colours. The cox of the winning crew is given a decorated rudder and the coach receives a wooden shield with a mock-up of the bow end of the boat. In my final year at university I coached a crew which gained its oars and the shield is one of my prized possessions.

During the summer term the Boat Club attracted many other people who wanted to row in the May Races for fun. The rugby and soccer clubs had a boat, also the medics. There was also a 'Gentleman's' boat which consisted of boat club members who couldn't afford the time to train regularly, particularly in their final year.

At the end of each term there was a special Boat Club dinner called a Bump Supper. These were always well attended and rather rowdy. We always drank far too much and often people would nip out of college into town later in the evening to perform some kind of prank. I was once bold enough to join such a group and was nearly caught by the Proctor and the police trying to push a large cable roller through the town back to college. Other stunts involved capturing one of the swans from the pond and depositing it in someone's room, changing the position of furniture in a room before filling it full of scrunched-up newspaper and a university golf player chipping golf balls from the rear garden over the Sir Christopher Wren designed chapel roof.

On another occasion a friend of mine, who is now a famous QC, somehow climbed up the front of the cinema which was across the road from Emmanuel and removed a huge cardboard cut-out of Elizabeth Taylor. He took this back to his room. The film, rather appropriately, was called 'Giant'.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Cambridge in the 1950s - Religion and Politics.

Cambridge in the 1950s was a hot-bed of social change. Apart from the traditional rivalry between 'town and gown' the post war years encompassed much religious and political activity challenging the establishment.  Evangelism was sweeping the academic world and religious groups were keen to recruit young, open-minded students together with more mature ex-national servicemen with strong anti-war principles, often conscientious objectors.

In my first few weeks as a student at Cambridge I was, like everyone else, bombarded with all manner of information about clubs and societies all wanting to me to join them. Fresher's week was the same in the 1950s as it is now. Each student had his own pigeon-hole adjacent to the Porter's Lodge where he could pick up messages and invitations from sports clubs, obscure religious groups and political activists. I remember once being invited to tea by a third year student and, arriving in my sports gear, was confronted with a small group reading extracts from The Bible. It was all very intense and really not for me. I found the traditional church litany far more comfortable, as represented by the College Chapel.

However Evangelism was not just confined to the non-conformist churches. The vicar of the University Church, Great St Mary's, was, at that time, Dr Mervyn Stockwood who represented the 'left wing' of the Church of England. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Billy Graham, American Christian evangelist, was invited to preach in St Mary's. The church was packed to capacity and I, like many others, religious or not, wanted to witness it.  He had a commanding personality and had the ability to impress a largely academic audience. There were certainly converts to Christianity after his visit, amongst an undergraduate population keen to get involved in new ideas.

Oxford and Cambridge, because they had produced statesmen and eminent politicians over the centuries, always attracted budding political activists. Emmanuel College already had a reputation for being left-wing although this was never evident in terms of producing extreme socialist views of political activity. In fact I found it was more apolitical, at least within my social circle. However the College debating society produced its own political thinkers, some of whom subsequently emerged as national figures. During my time there Cecil Parkinson was a student and Labour supporter but ended up as a senior figure in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Tom King was also at Emmanuel at this time and became Defence Secretary in John Major's government during the Gulf War.

For anyone with political aspirations, membership of the Cambridge Union was a must and, invariably, leading lights were being groomed by the main political parties.  Even the College Debating Society was a showcase for good public speakers. I was always envious of people who could stand up and ad-lib on any subject. I remember once attending a debate on the motion "That Marks and Spencer has done more for civilisation than either Marx or Spenser". Following the main speakers, the debate was open to the floor. In walked one of my contemporaries, fresh from the Cambridge Union, and entered into the debate without knowing what the motion was. He was hugely entertaining, though slightly drunk. His name was Michael Frayn and he was later to become a very successful playwright and author.