Colin Stansfield Smith (1932-2013)
Hampshire schools pioneer and RIBA Royal Gold Medallist Colin Stansfield Smith has died aged 80 following a stroke, writes John Pardey
Colin died last night in Winchester hospital after suffering a massive stroke nearly two weeks ago while playing cards with his friends at home. He never regained consciousness.
In 1985, Colin wrote that, ‘Architects are the rightful custodians of the public estate because they have the capacity to introduce joy, imagination and wit into our environments.’
Arriving at Hampshire County Council in 1974, Colin inherited a vast estate of educational buildings, fire stations, old people’s homes, libraries and schools. In his eighteen years as County Architect, Colin not only redefined school design in the UK but also changed a culture of public service.
Faced with bureaucratic systems and organisations, he reorganised the office structure to avoid formula by creating multi-disciplinary groups, with each handling a geographic area, responsible for all the existing buildings and projects in its area regardless of type. He invested in talent and grew a great team who worked ‘for Colin’, not for the Council.
Colin’s belief that the local authority mind-set of efficient building production had to be replaced with a commitment to the environment, from buildings to graphics and everything in between was happily shared by his great supporter, Freddie Emery-Wallace, (‘EW’ as he was known), Leader of the Council, whose maxim was always to be ‘roughly right than precisely wrong’ suited Colin’s approach to the ‘approximate’ art of architecture.
He would win by stealth, by subterfuge, by confrontation
Leading from the front as he had done during more than a hundred first-class cricket games for Lancashire during the 50s, his style was one of wearing down committees by going on relentlessly about something slightly off the point and finding ‘functional pegs’ on which to hang his arguments (security, energy use, maintenance and so on), never the artistic, or architectural reasons which he would slip through. He would win by stealth, by subterfuge, by confrontation.
In all my years working alongside Colin, first at Portsmouth School of Architecture where we met and later collaborating on various projects, he often referred to one small project that seemed to summarise his approach – the fairly modest Bridgemary Community school in Gosport completed in 1984. Here Colin took a bleak environment of system school buildings set in a sea of tarmac and surrounded by chain-link fencing and with the need for a new sports hall as a catalyst, set about preparing a masterplan for the future of the site. He spent the money tearing up the fences and built walls to link the best of the existing buildings centred on a new courtyard. The new walled environment became a more compact campus engendering a sense of place – ‘a walled garden, for growing children rather than just plants’ was one of his favourite analogies.
The early Hampshire schools that were to catch attention were the so called ‘big roof’ schools, that began with Newlands at Yateley in 1979. Here large pitched roofs had an environmental driver, bringing ventilation and light into deep plans and could not be further from the system-built flat roof schools and became champions for ‘critical regionalism’ in design.
Now acting more like a private practice than a local authority office, Colin not only entered competitions and submitted work to the Royal Academy, but also brought in outside consultants like Ted Cullinan, Michael Hopkins, Richard MacCormac and Peter Aldington, as well as engineers like Tony Hunt and Ted Happold that further invigorated the design development in Hampshire.
Hopkins’ Velmead School in Fleet from 1984 was to spawn a move from brick and tiled pitched roof schools to elegant metal sheds, culminating in Colin’s Queens Inclosure School in Cowplain five years later. Another move, this time to timber sheds was seen in the Bordon Whitehill School from 1991 – yet this diversity in style was entirely consistent for Colin, who was fond of being aligned with Isaiah Berlin’s definition of a ‘fox’ who would draw on a wide variety of ideas, so long as it ends in quality.
His legacy at Hampshire County Architects continues and twenty-one years on, under his protégé Bob Wallbridge, the quality of buildings has remained consistently high, winning dozens of further awards with buildings of joy and imagination. I think it fair to say that he was exasperated by recent Government’s disregard for high quality public architecture and for schools in particular and could feel history repeating.
Leaving Hampshire in 1992 he became Professor at Portsmouth University School of Architecture and continued his commitment to improving the environment by passing his knowledge to a new generation of architects.
He continued to design and I have been lucky enough to work on about a dozen schools with him in private practice (with only two built much to his frustration) as well as a John Lewis store in his alma mater town of Cambridge. Colin was wise, generous, warm and driven – he had an incredibly competitive edge and hated losing – so all the projects that ran aground in the exposed private sector were a constant frustration. He could from time to time take one’s breath away with an insightful angle on a design issue, or when he would say things like, ‘when I had lunch with Nehru’, or ‘Sigfreid Sassoon was a lovely man’ or, ‘now when I had dinner with Princess Diana, oh boy, …’.
RIBA president Angela Brady
Colin was one of my all-time school design heroes. He knew the value if designing for kids and teachers and all his innovative projects related to their natural context, inspirational educationally and blended into their landscape with a scale for kids to relate to. When I was chair of Civic Trust Awards a few years ago I was so impressed with his legacy of excellent schools that we gave Hampshire County Architects a special award for their schools. You can imagine his disappointment as we discussed the current school crisis and the total lack of innovation and design input, so different to his day. He still inspires today and he will be sadly missed and dearly remembered.
RIBA president elect Stephen Hodder
Colin was unique; a very gentle erudite man, a Mancunian, a county cricket player, a Royal Gold Medallist, an educator, but foremost an architect who changed the direction of school design. Woodlea and Queen’s Inclosure Primary Schools became exemplars for recent thinking on architecture as a catalyst for a transformative culture in education. I first met Colin while teaching at the University of Manchester School of Architecture. He was an external examiner and his constructive support for the school and students had such a positive and profound impact. Only three weeks ago, after viewing the Charles Correa exhibition at Portland Place, Colin engaged Angela and myself in a wonderful and warm discussion in the President’s Office (over an Irish whisky!) about the future of education. I shall hold dearly that last memory.
Bob Wallbridge, head of the Architects and Design Team at Hampshire County Council
In the nearly twenty years since his retirement as County Architect, Colin continued to be a close personal friend. He always welcomed and took time to nurture talented young architects, his legacy lives on through all of us in Hampshire. Colin was an exceptional influence on our lives, a man of energy, vitality and passion, a true champion for architecture in the public realm. Colin was unrelenting in his drive for excellence, we will remember our days with him undaunted by challenges, courageous, insightful and his conviction for all things architectural, tempered by his overwhelming sense of social purpose, humanity and generosity of spirit. Colin will be sorely missed but continues to be an inspiration for us all.