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Swain - the architect with the human touch

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The news of Henry Swain's death (AJ 17.1.02) reminded me of our first encounter. In 1981, as newly appointed AJ technical editor, I decided I should meet and hear the views of some of the leading county architects. Nottinghamshire and Swain had a formidable reputation and I soon found myself being ushered by his long-serving secretary, Sandy Simpson, into his rather spare and very tidy office.

The county architect was seated at a table with drawings, calculation sheets and load tables. He explained that much of his time was devoted to 'thinking' but he 'kept his handin' by doing the structural calculations for smaller buildings - in this case a school. He might have added that he also spent much time listening to others - especially user clients.

Swain features regularly in Andrew Saint's Towards a Social Architecture: the role of school building in post-war England.

Although the book refers in passing to the fire at the Fairfield old people's home in 1974, it does not mention the public enquiry at which the architect of this CLASP structure, Henry Morris of RMJM, and the county architect who commissioned him, Henry Swain, fought a hard but successful battle to avoid being cast as scapegoats.However, Swain did not rest there, but established the post of fire architect, the first in any local authority, occupied for many years by Simon Ham who frequently contributed to the AJ.

Accomplished as he was on technical matters, Swain was no mere technologist.He cared passionately about the society that he and his colleagues served - and relished such challenges as adapting a large CLASP comprehensive school into a social facility for a mining community.

He was intensely human, full of fears like the rest of us: nowhere is this clearer than in Return to Murmansk, the account of his harrowing wartime experience as a young seaman in an Arctic convoy escort and his return there in his yacht, Callisto, in 1990. He was even fearful that no one would read his book!

Peter Carolin, Cambridge

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