Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Hugh Casson, architect of numerous talents

  • Comment

Hugh Casson was many things: writer and public speaker (and anyone attempting an obituary note knows how much better he would have done it himself) as well as artist, architect and distinguished president - to recall his tenure as president of the Architectural Association many years before his final flowering at the Royal Academy. We remember him for all these things, but those who knew him well remember him most strongly and with affection because he was, in short, so good to be with. His friends benefited from his wisdom, which was deeper than those attributes that sparkled on the surface: his instant wit and charm.

Emerging as an architect just before the war, he was signed up as a member of the Modern Movement, working at first with Christopher Nicholson, one of the heroes of the heroic period. But when, after Nicholson's tragic death, I began to work with him, I was amazed by the breadth of his knowledge and tastes - and perhaps slightly shocked too: for a man who admired Lutyens so wholeheartedly was perhaps a little suspect to a young man recently emerged from the aa school! And it is worth noting that when asked to edit a series of books on architectural periods, he chose to do Victorian himself. (I first met him as my editor.)

After the 1951 Festival of Britain, of which he was director of architecture, he emerged as a national figure, both to architects and to laymen. He enjoyed his fame and knighthood and bore his honour well: his pride was never edged with arrogance. He could not say 'no' and was perhaps too generous with the giving of his time: sometimes to an enquiring student; often to the convenors of committees who sought his membership.

Immediately after the Festival, he was signed by Robin Darwin as a teacher and departmental head at the Royal College of Art. It was there that he had his office, just up the road from Patience Clifford and I: the three of us forming an office-sharing practice, pairing up, or not, according to the inclinations of the moment, without even a letter of agreement. It was not until 1956, when we were moving into the big time, that Hugh and I had a legal deed creating a partnership, soon to be expanded to include Ron Green and Michael Cain.

Hugh Casson had an impact on the work of the firm that was quite disproportionate to the time he spent with us. He knew that the functional creed, which was always our starting point, should be qualified by the 'mood of the occasion' (eg elephants on display for sale in Bombay need a different architecture to those in a popular zoo). I remember how good he was at establishing that mood for each occasion - indeed, establishing that there was something deeper than material issues to discuss. His sensibility and wisdom at this stage would influence a whole job - sometimes just by a phrase dropped into a conversation. 'You cannot but humiliate great elephants by making them stand in a straight line' - and one can imagine the instant Casson sketch of elephant trunks projecting out of regimented pens receding in perspective.

He died on 17 August, after a long illness. His wife Margaret and his three daughters were with him at the end.

Memories of a busy man who was never in a hurry

Dinah Casson, Hugh Casson's daughter and a partner with interior designer Casson Mann, writes:

I remember him as a funny man, a physical man - someone who wanted to hug and to touch, someone who hated pain of any sort. To us as children he never seemed to be in a hurry, although he must have been. When he was there, which of course he wasn't always, his time was for you and you alone. I think everyone felt that; how he managed it is a mystery. He dressed up for us: once as a gorilla. He wrote and drew for us - regular, illustrated letters describing his day, silly poems which made us laugh, water-colours of places we remembered together. He hummed tunes for us - like 'Stardust', 'Mood Indigo' - as he worked.

He taught us, mainly by example, about courtesy, generosity, patience. My sisters and I recall only two times when he lost his temper with us: both were because we were making someone else's life hell.

His illness gradually took his most treasured possessions - his sight, his concentration, and then his memory. Watching this process of erosion was heart-breaking. He never complained and never lost his patience, his courtesy and his really genuine interest in whoever he met - even after he ceased to recognise them.

People loved him because he made them smile, because he made their work seem enjoyable, because he taught us all how to behave. Hecouldn't make things, or change a plug or boil an egg, but he sang for us, encouraged us and hugged us. Now we realise how much we shared him - but the miracle was there was enough of him to go round. Friends, clients, professional colleagues and employees all remember him in the same way.

His favourite children's book, The Pirate Twins by William Nicholson, ended with a note left wedged on the dressing table: 'Have gone away for ever. Don't worry. Back soon.'

If only.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

AJ Jobs