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Obituary: John Partridge (1924-2016)

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Elain Harwood remembers John Partridge, a founding partner at profilic post-war practice Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis

John Partridge (1924-2016) was a wise man and a thoughtful architect. He brought discipline to the practice, Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis, a group of architects who had met working for the London County Council (LCC) in 1950. Together they were responsible for its most significant scheme of public housing, Alton West, including five slab blocks set sideways into the hill facing Richmond Park. Their independent practice was formed around their success in a competition for the new Churchill College, Cambridge, when in 1959 they were unofficially placed second, with the most imaginative scheme that was the favourite of most architectural critics.

Detailed by Partridge, it contained the basis of the practice’s distinctive style and led to a series of commissions for prestigious university buildings, many at Oxford and Cambridge, with Partridge taking responsibility for the former.

Alton West in Roehampton, London. Image Janet Hall  RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Alton West in Roehampton, London. Image Janet Hall RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Source: Janet Hall RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Alton West in Roehampton, London. Image Janet Hall RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Partridge had few of the social advantages of his partners, public schoolboys who had gone on to Cambridge University and the Architectural Association. He was born in north London, whence he won a scholarship to grammar school and moved to south London with his parents, and was then evacuated to Sevenoaks. When his father, an accounts clerk, was taken ill, Partridge gave up school to support his parents and took a job in the LCC’s Health Department. His break came when the LCC, anticipating a post-war shortage of architects, introduced a part-time course in conjunction with Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster University. Faced with the urgent need for new homes, the LCC gave responsibility for housing to its Valuer’s Department, where quantity rather than quality was the rule, but Partridge gave character to a development in Percival Street with great glazed staircases that still survive.

It was in 1950 that Robert Matthew, architect to the LCC, instigated a new housing division, largely to develop Alton West with modern blocks that befitted the remains of its Capability Brown landscape. A mix of towers and slabs with low-rise houses and flats allowed his mature trees to be retained, and Partridge recalled standing on one of the towers, orchestrating bulldozers to resculpt the hillside in a modern reinterpretation of Brown’s vision.

Alton West was built of storey-high concrete slabs of high quality, then an innovation, which Howell, Killick and Partridge developed further in the extended courtyards designed for Churchill College. Partridge carefully considered how rain would run down the concrete, determining that dirty windows caused most of the staining considered unsightly by many, and projected the glazing to throw the water off – leading to panels that resembled pieces of chocolate. This became the outstanding feature of the firm’s subsequent commissions for Birmingham University and for additions to St Anne’s and St Antony’s Colleges at Oxford. Churchill College envisioned building a monument to Britain’s wartime leader on an island in a lake, and for St Anne’s he proposed a music school set in water, similarly never realised.

The Hilda Besse building, containing a dining hall and social facilities for St Antony’s graduate college, was perhaps Partridge’s finest building, the chocolate-like slabs with their projecting windows set over pilotis, with a fine upper dining hall top lit under a grid of raised rooflights that repeated the motif. He was also proud of a hall of residence, Wells Hall, at Reading University, sadly demolished in 2012.

Dining hall in the Hilda Besse building, St Antony's College, Oxford

Dining hall in the Hilda Besse building, St Antony’s College, Oxford

Source: User: stevecadman / Wikimedia Commons

Dining hall in the Hilda Besse building, St Antony’s College, Oxford

John Killick and Bill Howell both died tragically young, in 1972 and 1974 respectively. While Killick had been ill with multiple sclerosis for many years, Howell’s death in a car crash threw the practice into disarray. It was left to Partridge to take over as its leader, continuing the firm’s growing expertise in theatre architecture with the fine new Albany Empire theatre in Deptford, a true community theatre and events setting on a modest budget, and extending its reach into new forms of public architecture, with work for the Royal Navy, Belmarsh Prison and extensive law courts in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Partridge was particularly fond of his last major work, Chaucer College, Canterbury, a Japanese university college which afforded the opportunity to indulge a long-standing passion for oriental building traditions. All these Partridge combined with increasing numbers of requests to chair committees, judge competitions and assess student work; all testimony to a great good sense mixed with a twinkling wit and kindness. In his last years he grew increasingly concerned at the political activities of his neighbour, Nigel Farage, and proud that the select village of Cudham where he made his home in the 1970s (taking on a major Regency house and part restoring it, part remodelling it on modern lines) still had one Labour voter.

Graduate Centre at Cambridge by Howell, Killick and Partridge and Amis (1967)

Source: Eric de Mare

Graduate Centre at Cambridge by Howell, Killick and Partridge and Amis (1967)

Tributes:

Owen Luder, past president of the RIBA

I’m very sad to hear of the passing of John Partridge, who was a good friend over the years. His contribution, firstly as part of the LCC Architects Department and then with Howell, Killick and Partridge and Amis, was very considerable.

The Roehampton Housing scheme was earth-breaking – and as a follower of Corb very much a favourite of mine – and still is. He was very much involved in the ACA, which Leslie Watson and I started in 1965 as the APA (the Association of Private Architects), Eric Lyons changing its title to the Association of Consultant Architects when he took over as chairman from me in 1971.

John was a considerable influence on architecture; many of the university buildings for which he and his practice were responsible were headline buildings in the architectural press at the time. But he was also a ‘hands on’ architect, very much involved in practice issues – the boring but very import issues of the standard construction contracts.

Quite apart from that he was a very nice guy. I doubt if you would find anyone with a bad word about him.

A statement from the Association of Consultant Architects

John was one of the founder members of the ACA and one of the five recipients of the ACA Medal, receiving his in 2005. The award was given in recognition of John Partridge’s contribution to the practice and profession of architecture and to the work of the ACA for whom he is a founder member and past president. John also made a considerable commitment to the RIBA throughout his career, he was elected to the Royal Academy in 1980 and received a CBE in 1981.

John Partridge (left) with Paul Davies

John Partridge (left) with Paul Davies

John Partridge (left) with Paul Davies, receiving his ACA medal in 2005

John Partridge summed up by stressing, in relation to his extensive commitment over the years to the architectural profession, how very important he had always felt it to be to participate and give back to the profession a measure of all he had received from it through his work in practice.’

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