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A new exhibition and book celebrates BDP’s 50 years in business, writes James Pallister

[THIS WEEK] ‘My home background and voracious reading gave a strong leftward inclination to my views on life,’ wrote George Grenfell Baines, who in 1961 set up Building Design Partnership (BDP).

They’re a curious lot, BDP; a practice that routinely manages to be the biggest in the business, yet one which, as Hugh Pearman acknowledged at the opening of its 50th birthday exhibition in the RIBA’s Florence Hall last week (pictured), seems at ease with the left-leaning aims of its founder.

In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Pearman notes that for a long time the main ‘engine rooms’ of the practice were in Preston and Manchester. Grenfell Baines kept the bulk of the talent close to his home town and – in an anecdote that will delight anyone begrudging those London luvvies and their superiority complexes – for a long time the London branch was something of a backwater to the main enterprise.

Grenfell Baines took the opposite direction to architects like Le Corbusier, Denys Lasdun and James Stirling who were then cultivating their signature styles, to emphasise a collective way of working. In this he was inspired by the history of Walter Gropius who brought together artists, photographers, sculptors and architects at the Bauhaus. As Grenfell Baines enthusiastically wrote: ‘Why not do this with the building industry and the professions? Group practices of all the disciplines! Technology and Art linking together in fruitful dialectic relationships!’

And so, in its early years, the firm employed not only architects, engineers and surveyors, but also graphic designers, industrial designers and sociologists. In a touching tale, Grenfell Baines finally got to meet Gropius years later at Harvard, taking the chance to tell him what they had achieved at BDP. ‘You have done what I would have liked to have done at Dessau,’ Gropius said. Upon hearing that, Grenfell Baines said, ‘I felt I had turned to look down from the mountain, realising how far we had climbed’.

The exhibition is open until 24 June 2011, entry is free.

Readers' comments (5)

  • No egos and consistently good architecture. Congratulations for all these years and for the many more to come for sure. An example to follow.

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  • Shame they couldn't have graced either Manchester or Preston with this exhibition*. I dont think George would have approved. *i am happy to be proved wrong on this when i am told that it will indeed be coming north.

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  • Eddy, the exhibition is indeed heading North and goes on show in the Cube in Manchester from 7 October to 5 November. "Given BDP’s northern roots it will have an emphasis on working in the northern region and working in international regions."

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  • I'm looking forward the the exhibition coming North - it's in my diary. I explore BDP's Halifax HQ in my book 'Brutalism: British Post-war Architecture' which is available from the publishers Crowood Press or Amazon.

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  • I stand corrected. Thanks Tracey - really looking forward to it.

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