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Kingston's Tim Bell: 1935-2001

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The death of Tim Bell, former deputy head of Kingston School of Architecture and Landscape, has saddened all generations of students, colleagues and friends who were inspired by his intellectual leadership. They were stimulated by him, uplifted by his personality, and they loved him.

Tim was born in 1935 and educated at St Paul's, where he was Captain of Boats. He won a classical scholarship to Oxford, graduated in Greats and then threw himself into architecture, studying at Kingston College of Art, where he remained as a teacher through its transformations to polytechnic and university. He retired last summer.

Through all this time, he was the intellectual and design leader of the school and saw many of his students achieve prominence in architecture and other fields. Colleagues left for distinguished posts in education, among them many heads of school.

In the early 1970s, he pioneered the foreign town study - starting with Kingston's twin town, Delft, and spreading to other European cities and beyond. This became an important cultural and architectural event for generations of students.

His background in both philosophy and architecture gave rise to a rare synthesis of theory and practice. The breadth of his learning was prodigious and enabled him to incorporate the latest theoretical fashions (which he had usually anticipated) into a wider perspective, so that he was able to demonstrate a more permanent underlying continuity in the subject.

For students, this meant that they were taught by many first-time teachers experimenting with their own, often barely articulate, ideas that Tim could always phrase in jargon-free English. During one period, Kingston came close to rivalling New York's Cooper Union for the ferment of thinking which Tim encouraged.

The warmth of his interest and the perpetual youthfulness and curiosity he brought to new ideas (however misshapen or convoluted) was legendary. Using his classical background, he brought a new and refined version of the Socratic Dialectic into architectural debate, using paradoxes and contradictions to advance ideas and to generate them. As ringmaster Tim was without peer, though many have tried to copy him.

In the 1980s he spent a sabbatical year at Cambridge, where he completed a post-graduate degree which enabled him to apply his profound knowledge of post-Freudian psychology to a dissertation on Le Corbusier. Sadly, Tim did not publish widely, and dedicated his efforts largely to discussion and teaching, but his large collection of manuscripts and lecture notes will be edited and given a wider audience.

Tim's great achievement was to make students surprise themselves with their ability to think with integrity about subjects they didn't believe they could understand, and then use them to inform their design work. In many ways, he was Kingston, operating under all three of the heads the school has had since its inception.

We shall all miss his zest for life, those wide-ranging discussions, and that sense that he trod a tightrope between the dark and the light. He never, as far as we can remember, over his entire academic life uttered a cliche or a platitude. Tim danced.

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