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Humphrey Lyttelton - AJ's man of the year

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As the plaudits continue to roll for the deceased trumpeter and radio personality Humphrey Lyttelton, former AJ editor Peter Carolin recalls a curious footnote to the great man’s career, as a hero of the architectural world.

50 years ago, on 23 January 1958, a curiously entitled AJ article, ‘HUMPH! or, a trumpery affair’, reported on events at a recent planning appeal. Barnet Urban District Council had refused planning consent for a U-shaped courtyard house designed by John Voelcker for the trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. At the then significant cost of £300 in legal fees, Lyttelton was fighting for his right to build a £7,000 house on a secluded site at Arkley.

Humphrey Lyttleton

Barnet’s grounds for refusal were that ‘the type, design and external appearance of the proposed dwelling would be out of keeping with the existing development and would have a prejudicial effect on the general character and amenity of the locality’. Oddly, there were no objectors. The local Preservation Society supported the application and the Editor of the AR had congratulated Voelcker on his ‘charming building’.

The high point of the hearing occurred when the Clerk to the Council suggested that the design might ‘with a slight internal alteration and conversion … easily be adapted into some kind of stable.’ Voelcker, whose small country practice included much agricultural work, was unfazed. ‘I don’t think you could get the horses and cows in there, for a start’.

What do I think of architects?  It’s an odd question – and the oddest thing about it is that it should be asked at all. I should not expect to be asked what I think of plumbers or chimney sweeps

Humphrey Lyttleton

Lyttelton won his appeal and construction was under way when, later in the year, the AJ editors, casting around for some Men of the Year for their annual New Year issue, selected Lyttleton and Voelcker. The 15 January 1959 issue contained a photograph of client, architect and builder on the site, a couple of breezy biographies and a piece by each of them.   Voelcker’s was a wonderful insight into his work in a small country practice while Lyttleton’s was on ‘The client’s reflex action’: 

‘What do I think of architects? It’s an odd question – and the oddest thing about it is that it should be asked at all. I should not expect to be asked what I think of plumbers… or chimney sweeps. Their function is not called into question. If I tell my friends that my pipes have burst and my living-room is awash, they don’t bother to ask ‘Are you going to send for a plumber?’ They assume, quite rightly that … I shall be on the phone to him screaming for help. 

`What’s so different about architects? No sooner did I start putting it about that I was building my own house than people asked “Are you having an architect?” Frankly, I had never thought about it. Once I had decided to build, it was almost a reflex action to engage an architect. To this day, I’m not quite sure what the alternative is, short of designing the house myself and having it collapse about my ears… Clearly, there is an alternative – and one looked with favour by that department of bumbledom concerned with the erection of houses.  

For as soon as I entered into the necessary negotiations with the local council … it became clear to me that I had seriously handicapped myself by engaging an architect at all. Elaborate machinery was set in motion for the sole purpose, as far as I could see, of thwarting him. His plans were not only rejected, but criticized and openly derided on practical grounds by people with less qualifications to judge them than me, since they were not proposing to live in the house. 

‘At a public hearing to appeal against the decision of the council, men of supreme insignificance were enabled with impunity to cast doubt upon his professional ability …  And even the Minister of Housing’s findings, reversing the council’s decision in our favour, were couched in terms of condescension, as though the Ministry were reluctantly unable to find good cause to stop the building.  … Once (architects) are qualified, their professional work is handed over for judgement to persons of no comparable qualification, whose ignorance is matched only by their prejudice. As a result, Britain is still, in the main, an architectural wasteland.  

‘So what do I think of architects?  As a creative artist myself, I hold them corporately in the deepest respect for becoming architects in the first place, and thenceforth for retaining their sanity.  Under the conditions in which John Voelcker, my architect, has had to work, I should long ago have been ushered gently away by men in white, leaving a trail of mutilated borough councillors in my wake. … As a client, my attitude to my architect is much the same as my attitude to my dentist.  Having chosen a dentist because I believe he will do the job well, I lie back, open my mouth and leave the rest to him. So it is with my architect – except that, when in doubt, I keep my mouth shut.’

Construction was complete by the time Voelcker presented the house to the CIAM gathering at Otterlo in September 1959.  The following year, it was published in the AR (May 1960) – and thus became the most published of all the built works of this modest country architect who Alison Smithson excised from her history of Team X but whom Aldo van Eyck held in the highest regard.   He died young, aged 45, in 1972. 

Over time, the house was much changed.  John McHale’s splendidly witty pop mural in the entrance hall disappeared, the interior arrangements were changed, the roof shingles were abandoned and patio doors substituted for the elegant window walling for which Voelcker had drawn, freehand,  the most beautiful full-size details. Meanwhile, Lyttelton politely discouraged architect visitors.  He died last week (25 April), aged 86.  He deserves to be remembered not just for his trumpet playing, TV appearances and Daily Mail cartoons but also for his battle against Barnet UDC.

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