Sir George Grenfell-Baines (1908-2003)
Hugh Pearman remembers the late Building Design Partnership chairman - 'reformer, organiser, inspirer and occasional irritant' - whose funeral took place last week
It was the early 1980s, and Richard Saxon had given me a job at BDP in London, working as an in-house editor. Having come from an architecture magazine, I was used to architects and their ways.What I was not used to, at first, was the ethos of BDP, which was the distinctly personal vision of a much-mentioned and almost mythical absentee from the office - Sir George Grenfell-Baines.
I discovered that the BDP chairman, a courteous and shy man called Jack Rodin, was not an architect at all, but a structural engineer of some repute - he had engineered Frederick Gibberd's Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral - and later merged his firm with Grenfell-Baines'. Gradually I met more and more people who were not architects either - or sometimes were architects who, like Janet Jack, had turned to other things. She headed the landscape arm of the practice and always designed the settings for Jim Stirling's British buildings. They were part of an Architectural Association group that included her husband Bill Jack, who was soon to collaborate with Jeremy Dixon to compete for and win the Royal Opera House competition, and who occasionally teamed up with another independent architect, Douglas Stephen, on projects. Grenfell-Baines had always liked to work in this Protean way. But I still hadn't met him.
BDP was big on interiors and graphics, on systems engineering, energy consciousness, early CAD, lighting design, all kinds of things. Oh, and architecture. But that was not a product. That was part of the process, as laid down by the man always known as 'GG'.Where was he?
Usually in Preston, where it had all began in 1936. There in the 1980s you would find the crack shopping-centre team under Keith Scott. He employed the genial Arts and Crafts revivalist Frank Roberts to draw the then-fantastical elevations and turrets of the Ealing Broadway Centre. Roberts later went solo.
As did a youngster in the same office - the northern correspondent of the in-house magazine - called Stephen Hodder. In Manchester, meanwhile, you would find the high-Modernist ethos alive and well under Bill Pearson, the man who masterminded one of BDP's best-ever buildings, the late-1960s Halifax Building Society headquarters perched high in the air on its service cores, anticipating Koolhaas and Alsop.
In London sat Bob Smart, who had won the 1970 competition for a megastructural United Nations complex in Vienna, never built.
Instead, Bob designed the Channel Tunnel Terminal. Twice, I think:
once for the Wilson government, once in the Thatcher era. Later, you'd find a quartet answering to the names of Allford, Hall, Monaghan and Morris - still remembered in the practice to this day as 'the Bartlett boys'. GG was to befriend the fledgling AHMM, as he did the Hodder practice. Nearby you would find David Rock, an earlier breakaway, in his own practice. Rock had brought BDP south, appointed by GG to found the London office single-handedly in 1959 when it was still known as Grenfell-Baines and Hargreaves. I never found out who Hargreaves was, any more than I discovered who the mysterious HJ Reifenberg was, with whom GG had collaborated on the design of the rather good Power and Production Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. It was GG's talent to attract complementary talents, and stand back.Who else would remove his own name from a wildly successful practice?
Thus BDP - the name and the multi-discipline ethos were officially launched in 1961 - was a diffuse organisation, multi-disciplinary, collaborative, tolerant and, by stern intent, largely anonymous.
Eventually I met the fountainhead.
Grenfell-Baines would pop in (he had retired, but stayed on as a consultant).Or he would hold court in the old Bertorelli's in Charlotte Street. He was an architect, but looked nothing like one. With his sweptback silver hair, ruddy complexion and tweedy outfits, he looked more like one's notion of an 18th-century gentleman farmer. In fact he was the son of a Preston railwayman, and it was whispered (this was the Thatcher era) that he was, or had been, a Communist. He admired Gropius, Aalto and most Corb. Though not Ronchamp, presumably because of his Pevsnerian suspicion of personality buildings. He had much in common with the celebrated London County Council architects' department of the 1940s and '50s: the commitment to public service, the integrated design teams, the left-wing credentials, the suppression of individual personality.
Buildings you could ascribe directly to GG had - being mostly wartime factories - largely vanished. Once, he drove me around Preston and we stopped at one of his earliest jobs from the '30s, a competent but unexceptional bungalow. 'The window-sills are higher than usual, ' he pointed out. 'The lady client wanted to sit and see what was going on in the street, but didn't want to be seen doing it.' He fixed me with his gimlet eye. 'Always listen to what the client wants!'
GG's role was what PG Wodehouse's contemporary Ukridge character would call 'the big, broad, outlook'. Like Ukridge, he always had wizard wheezes that he persuaded others to back. Unlike Ukridge, he hit the big time. Those who look only for signature buildings miss the whole point of the Grenfell-Baines project. Some individuals within BDP could do those, but that was not where his interests lay. He was a reformer, an organiser, an inspirer, and not infrequently an irritant. But he was right. Where is the industry going? If architects really want to wrest back control of the building process from other disciplines, they will have to do what Grenfell-Baines did in 1961 - offer all those disciplines as well, wrapped up in a package. Then you have a measure of control. It is a simple idea, but fiendishly difficult to do well.