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Danish-inspired pioneer of Welsh modernism Graham Brooks dies, aged 92

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Richard Weston remembers the life and works of Graham Brooks (1928–2020), who brought Danish design aesthetics to south Wales in the 1960s

Graham Brooks, who has died aged 92, was an architect with an outstanding gift for domestic design, recognised in 2002 by a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Royal Society of Architects in Wales.

Working from an office in Penarth, just west of Cardiff, he produced a series of individual houses and speculatively built housing. The latter must rank among the best of the time in the UK, but wider recognition was hard to come by: as he observed in a combative article in the Western Mail, despite the RIBA’s declared commitment to give greater recognition to housing, only one scheme – a SPAN development by Eric Lyons – had won an award in the past six years.

Like many of his generation, Brooks was passionate about Danish design. This might not have been an obstacle in England, but in Wales could be problematic. A fine entry, inspired by the work of Knud Friis, to a 1962 competition for the Design of a Welsh House was summed up as an ‘ardent and unblushing love-affair with the architecture of northern Europe’ by the chief arbiter of Welshness in architecture, Dewi-Prys Thomas, and deemed to merit only a ‘special award’.

Happily, Graham’s stylistic inclinations did not worry local clients and, after completing his own (Danish-inspired, naturally) house in 1964, he received a string of private commissions, among which the Capel House in Llandaff of 1966 was outstanding, as was recognised by its being awarded the Gold Medal for Architecture at the 1968 National Eisteddfod.

Work with the Penarth branch of Bristol-based building contractors William Cowlin led to his first housing project. Completed in 1969, this was for a one-sided close of eight houses in the village of Dinas Powys – in one of which I am writing this obituary.

The plan is an opened-up variation of the familiar ‘semi’ – detached, but linked to neighbours by a flat-roofed garage. The houses are ranged in a gentle but perceptible crescent, rather than a straight line, and the roofs, shallower-pitched than usual, form a series of ‘temple fronts’. The rhythm these create is reinforced by projecting, single-storey timber boxes that house a cloakroom. Their roofs extend to form an entrance canopy supported by a trellis of timber beams.

You enter through a glazed slot between the timber box and the house proper, and your gaze comes to rest on one of the pair of tall, free-standing brick walls that support the trellises and establish each house’s private territory in a way that fences and planting can never do – the contribution they make to the house’s habitability is difficult to overstate. These modest Mill Close houses epitomise Graham’s ability to raise domestic design in ways all too rarely attempted in speculatively-built work.

Merevale drawing

11 houses at Merevale, The Common, Dinas Powis, South Glamorgan by Hird and Brooks

11 houses at Merevale, The Common, Dinas Powys, South Glamorgan by Hird and Brooks

Born on 27 February 1928, his father, Thomas, and grandfather were both Bristol Channel pilots. After showing a talent for art, Graham entered the Welsh School of Architecture in 1945 and, after completing the first year, was conscripted into the Royal Engineers for a period of National Service, later returning to graduate with distinction in 1952.

He eventually joined the Penarth-based practice formed by Gerald Stanley and John Grenfell Hird in 1956. This became Hird and Brooks, an ideal combination of a capable businessman and passionate designer. Harry Emery, an architectural technician in the practice, recalls that Graham was always hugely enthusiastic about his work, and generally ‘up from 6 am to 11 pm’. To Emery’s pain (he loved rock music) Graham kept a large stack of cassette tapes of classical music to play on journeys to distant sites.

Fittingly, he met his future wife Aase (née Ginnerup) on 21 March 1959 at an exhibition in London promoting Danish design, where she was giving out samples of Danish cheeses. They married in January 1960.

Following the success of Mill Close, Cowlins bought a nearby site off Elm Grove Lane in Dinas Powys. Brooks persuaded the manager of their Penarth branch, Roger Helliwell, to accompany him on a study visit to Denmark. He returned convinced about the virtues of a painted brickwork base (commons, after all, are reassuringly cheap) surmounted by a slightly projecting timber-framed and boarded first floor. The layout flew in the face of orthodoxy. Corners were resolved by houses with no road frontage, and brick drives, paths and gutters replaced asphalt and concrete kerbs.

Elm Grove won a Civic Trust Award, and Graham’s finest design, in the grounds of Mount House adjacent to Dinas Powys Common, followed. Completed in 1975, it deployed the fully modern architectural language used in the Capel House, with an open plan framed by projecting, white-painted brick walls and flat roofs supported by an exposed timber structure.

Inspired by Jørn Utzon’s Kingo houses, Brooks even managed to convince the council to accept non-standard, low-level street lights of his own design. The layout reflected his obsession with orientation to the sun as a key objective of housing design: in his later years he amassed literally hundreds of examples, printed from Google Earth, that showed how so much Danish housing followed this principle.

Mount drawing

Mount House drawing

Mount House drawing

Finally, to the north of The Mount, came the smaller, decidedly Uzonesque, Merevale development of seven T-shaped courtyard houses and four slightly more conventional designs. With its completion, it is surely fair to say that few places in Britain can offer a more instructive series of private housing designs of the period than the village of Dinas Powys.

Among his later projects, a Forest Cabin, designed for the Forestry Commission, was perhaps closest to Graham’s heart, the clarity of its all-timber design exemplifying his detailing skills. The project started auspiciously, a prototype being rushed to completion in Cowlin’s yard to be ready for a royal visit by Lord Snowdon, who then chaired the Design Council. The visit began slightly disconcertingly when Snowdon asked how much the cabin weighed. Three sites were built, but the programme was abruptly ended by the new Thatcher government. The Welsh Forestry Commission subsequently commissioned a timber pavilion for the Royal Welsh Show in 1983.

It was opened by HM The Queen, with the Duke of Edinburgh in attendance, who ordered one to use as a shooting lodge at Sandringham. Sadly, the equerry put in charge proved a nightmare to deal with and the commission evaporated. A few examples of what were meant to be hundreds of cabins across Britain were built, many of them – irony of ironies for this Swiss-looking design – courtesy of a Bath-based company which exported them to Switzerland.

Graham 5 with lord snowden

Graham Brooks with Lord Snowden

Graham Brooks with Lord Snowden

Graham worked into ‘normal’ retirement, completing an award-winning house for his son and daughter-in-law in Sully in 2002. His talent for design was matched by his skills as a draughtsman and watercolourist, and colleagues recall him devoting many days to a single rendering, ensuring that every detail was correct. He contributed regularly to the exhibitions of the Society of Amateur Artists: a superb rendering of Westminster Abbey was used for their 1997 exhibition poster.

He even turned his hand to poetry. In 2000, looking back on ‘My Happiest Day’, he recalled the destruction of his school in the war: ‘Although there were occasions of times sublime, / I still wouldn’t change my view of my happiest day / Cos it’s still when my school was near all blown away’

Brooks, who died on 21 March, is succeeded by his son, Ian.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University and director of Weston Earth Images

 

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