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Keeping it simple

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reviewPeter Shepheard Edited by Annabel Downs. Landscape Design Trust, 2004. 160pp. £27.50

The subject of this handsomely illustrated monograph was born in 1913 and died in 2002, belonging to that generation of architects who were profoundly affected by the wartime absence of chances to build. He was luckier than most, since his childhood mentor was the great Patrick Abercrombie.

Shepheard was the son of a hard-up architect living in a cottage on a hill outside Birkenhead, looking across the Mersey to a panorama of Liverpool, and in the other direction to the wildlife of the Wirral, where he spent his childhood exploring and drawing instead of doing games.

In 1937 he applied for a job with Derek Bridgwater, son-in-law of his Liverpool professor Charles Reilly, shifting in 1939 to a 'surreal military world' from which he was lent to the new Ministry of Town & Country Planning. There he worked first on Abercrombie's Greater London Plan, and then on the masterplan for Stevenage, the pioneer of the ring of proposed New Towns around the capital. Falling foul of its bureaucratic procedures, he was relieved to rejoin Bridgwater as a partner in the small private office engaged for years on large public jobs, that became Bridgwater, Shepheard and Epstein.

Its work was simple and durable, completed on time at something like the contract price. These were qualities that passed unnoticed in a publicity-conscious professional climate that sought originality at any cost. But unlike more celebrated buildings of those years, this work grew old gracefully.

Shepheard once remarked: 'I'd be happy to stick to lead, wood, brick, stone - understand these and you can't go far wrong. Who needs a bloody great compendium of building materials?

Only fools asking for trouble!'

These beliefs were demonstrated in his contribution to the Festival of Britain in 1951. People's favourite memory from the South Bank was often of his moat garden, while for the festival's Live Architecture exhibition at Lansbury, Poplar, Shepheard dared to ignore professional opinion by providing semi-detached houses with hipped roofs and front hedges - still to this day the best-loved part of the estate.

Shepheard was a superlative draftsman.

His perspectives, whether they were instant sketches in the margins of his assistants' drawing boards, or splendidly finished presentation drawings, were an accurate prediction of the eventual building, but he was far more admired for his chance pencil drawings of plants, birds and women. They filled the borders of the minutes of the innumerable committees on which he sat, as he became an influential president, not only of the RIBA and the Architectural Association, but of the RTPI and the Institute of Landscape Architects.

His landscape work followed a similar set of assumptions to that of his buildings, using a limited range of plants, conscious of their growth patterns, and simplifying at every stage. This volume contains 'before' and 'after' illustrations of his advice, which was to cut out the fussy detail and geometry.

Several of the contributors to this elegant tribute are people drawn to him by his 30 years of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, and it is useful to compare the approach of Shepheard and Epstein to the building of new universities with that of other firms who rejoiced that they could display their genius in individual buildings. Both believed that universities should be located within exisiting cities. Denied this option, but given the opportunity to develop Lancaster University, they avoided freestanding monuments and built for growth through a series of courtyards and covered ways.

I used to tell Shepheard that his simplifying approach reminded me of W R Lethaby, who remarked in 1918: 'We lay out sham splendours of cracked cement and cast-iron around a fountain which holds no water, rather than get a carpenter to set up a strong home-made seat by a space of clean turf or a blossoming tree.' He would smile and ask whether the clients would opt for anything so simple. But this book is a nice reminder that some did.

Colin Ward worked for Bridgwater, Shepheard and Epstein for 10 years

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