Richard Weston remembers architect Bryan Avery, a practical visionary who pursued architecture as a public art
Bryan Avery MBE, who has died aged 73, was a quintessentially British architect whose love of sketching and passion for cities and landscapes were combined with a fascination with advanced technologies. He invented patented products, designed nationally significant cultural buildings, and articulated an all-embracing vision for a sustainable future he called Wilderness City.
I first met Bryan at a lecture about his 1988 Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), and while it was understandable that the press hailed his breakthrough project as High-Tech, it was clear other thoughts were fermenting beneath the surface. Many were stimulated by his Master’s studies at Essex under Joseph Rykwert and Dalibor Vesely. Grounded in Continental philosophy, the course emphasised the ‘relatedness’ of architecture – to the human subject, to programme and to context.
Despite the acclaim for MOMI, major projects were initially hard to come by. Exquisite, Soane-inspired interiors were infiltrated into Plantation House and a series of studies made for RADA, where he found a true patron in Richard Attenborough. Reflecting on a roof to accommodate dance studios atop an old factory, Bryan wryly observed: ‘If I get to build this roof, after 15 years in practice I will have built every part of a building – but never in the same place.’
Happily, RADA decided on a comprehensive redevelopment of its Bloomsbury base (1994-2000), for which he crafted a miracle of tightly-packed spaces around a top-lit cleft, which Peter Davey described in the Architectural Review as of ‘Soanean intensity’.
Alongside RADA came the London IMAX (1991-99). Built on a roundabout near Waterloo station it became a popular landmark and confirmed Bryan’s skill with difficult sites, leading to invitations to help refine large commercial proposals.
His unacknowledged contribution to the City is considerable, and the two commercial buildings that carry his name, an office development next to the Old Bailey (with Sidell Gibson) and the refurbishment of Neathouse Place opposite Victoria Station, stand out. The latter won 11 awards and, like RADA and IMAX, was given Landmark status by Westminster City Council.
Bryan Avery and the Queen at RADA
Bryan relished smaller projects, such as the exquisitely detailed extension to Repton School’s theatre and the intimate Princess Alexandra Hall for the Royal Over-Seas League, but alongside small commissions, he always pursued grander competitions and devoted time to his vision for Wilderness City. The densification of urban settlements is now orthodoxy, and some of his more provocative rural ideas, such as the downgrading of minor B-roads, have been advocated by the National Trust. His take on sustainability was distinctive and deeply thought, leading a reviewer of his book Fragments of Wilderness City to describe him as offering ‘the clearest exposition of urban disintegration I have encountered’.
Bryan occupied a unique place in British architecture, a practical visionary who pursued architecture as a quintessentially public art. From a provocative 1981 proposal to pedestrianise Oxford Street to his final proposal to combine a boardwalk along the north bank of the Thames with an alternative site for the new concert hall for Simon Rattle’s LSO, he was always brimming with ideas – and never afraid to speculate and provoke.
Richard Weston is an architect, author and visiting professor at the School of Art and Design at Cardiff Metropolitan University
Tribute from Norman Foster
Bryan Avery was a tireless supporter of progressive initiatives, especially in London. I remember his messages of support when we proposed the Thames Hub Airport or SkyCycle for London, with its elevated cycle track that could follow the railway lines – he was always one of the first to offer encouragement. His projects were in the same spirit, as exemplified by the dramatic transformation of a traffic roundabout at Waterloo to signal the IMAX cinema for the British Film Institute, and the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. As a committed Modernist and a voice for good works he will be sorely missed.