Sir Philip Powell (1921-2003)
In partnership with Jacko Moya, the late Sir Philip Powell was responsible for some of the most popular and humane post-war Modern buildings, and was a distinguished member of the Royal Fine Art Commission, writes Kenneth Powell
The death of Philip Powell at the age of 82 robs us of another member of that extraordinary generation of architects who brought to the post-war reconstruction of Britain a genuine belief in the capacity of architecture to improve people's lives. For a decade or so, indeed, Powell & Moya, the practice that Powell founded with Hidalgo (Jacko) Moya (1920-94) in 1946, was probably the most widely admired practice in Britain, a nursery of talent that nurtured, among others, Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton, Paul Koralek, James Gowan and Richard MacCormac.
Powell was not only an architect who changed the face of Britain for the better.He was also a man of extraordinary charm, endless generosity and exceptional modesty.
Powell and Moya met at the AA during the war years - both had been ruled unfit for military service. They came from very different backgrounds, but worked well together.
After qualifying, Powell and Moya were briefly in the office of Frederick Gibberd (who had taught at the AA) but in 1946 they beat 63 other contenders to win the competition for what became Churchill Gardens - the development of more than 1,700 flats and houses for Westminster Council took 15 years to build. 'This sort of thing is not London at all, ' commented John Summerson but Churchill Gardens was, and remains, highly popular with its residents. The roots of the scheme lay in the housing schemes that Powell had seen on his pre-war travels in Europe, especially the work of van Tijen & Maaskant and Oud in the Netherlands.
With Churchill Gardens under construction, Powell & Moya won other jobs. The Lamble Street housing in Gospel Oak (1951-54), a mix of medium- and low-rise - Powell was never an enthusiast for tower blocks - was remarkable for its sympathetic response to the urban context. Mayfield School, Putney, was judged by Ian Nairn 'one of the best new buildings in London' - this did not prevent Wandsworth council from needlessly spoiling it. The Festival Theatre in Chichester (where Powell's father had been a cathedral canon) was as economical as it was innovative. Then there was, of course, the 1951 Festival of Britain's Skylon, the work of Moya (as Powell always pointed out), working with the engineer Felix Samuely, and the Euston Arch of Modernism (though it was never intended to be permanent).
During the half century of Powell & Moya's existence (Moya retired in 1990, Powell the following year and the firm became Powell Moya Partnership), its workload consisted almost entirely of public commissions, largely education and health buildings. Its Oxbridge projects - the housing for Brasenose College, Oxford, was the first - were remarkably pioneering as Modern insertions into dense historic contexts. Surprisingly, Powell & Moya did not do a 'new' university - the entirely new Wolfson College, Oxford, was the nearest it got to a campus. The office tower on London Wall, built in association with the Museum of London, was a rare commercial project - and not a building Powell was particularly proud of.
Reyner Banham characterised Powell & Moya's work as 'gentlemanly'. The adjective could be applied to the ethos of the office as much as to its output. Neither Powell nor Moya wanted to run a large practice. The picture gallery at Christ Church, Oxford, was Powell's own favourite among the completed buildings - 'small, compact and yet perfect in its way'. He came to feel that the practice had done too many hospitals, jobs where the degree of control and quality he sought was often hard to obtain.
Powell served for many years, with great distinction, on the Royal Fine Art Commission (where one of his fellow commissioners for a time was the Classicist Raymond Erith, whose work Powell admired). Powell & Moya won the Royal Gold Medal in 1974 and Powell was knighted the following year, becoming Companion of Honour in 1984.After his retirement, he served as a juror for a number of important competitions - the Inland Revenue HQ at Nottingham, for example, and Tate Modern - and as an adviser on Lottery projects.
He retained an active interest in new architecture. Though his own predilection was for an architecture of content, rather than form, he could enthuse about the work of Zaha Hadid.
'Titch' was his nickname in his younger years. Philip Powell was small in physical stature but his achievement as architect and promoter of good architecture was immense.