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Obituary: Norman Engleback (1927-2015)

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Architect who worked on the Hayward Gallery, Royal Festival Hall, Crystal Palace sports centre and the National Film Theatre, Norman Engleback has died aged 88

We mourn the loss of my father Norman Engleback who played a significant role, and was referred to by Jonathan Glancy on his book on 20th century architecture as one of the young Turks in the LCC Architects department in the 1950s and 60s. He came from humble beginnings and an interview about his life is preserved in the British Library. 

In 1943 he got a job in the drawing office at Kings Cross for LNER and for four years was involved in rebuilding bombed railway structure. An learning a clear, careful, but rapid draughting technique. He told me recently his first building was a signal box near Mile End. He studied architecture in evening classes at the Northern Polytechnic. On leaving LNER he worked for Armstrongs, an established practice, and more excitingly for him under Tony Cox at ACP (Architects Co-operative Partnership).

His main career was at the LCC Architect Department in 1952. His first major projects was Elm Court School which got him noticed by Dr (later Sir) Leslie Martin who was architect to the council because it was efficient and flexible as well as costing a third less per head than the norm. A modernist and socialist, he always looked for ‘Less is More’, and was inspired by traditional Chinese architecture on which he wrote his Thesis.

He also hugely admired the work of Le Corbusier, and it was a revelation to me being taken to his chapel at Ronchamp when I was nine years old and having it explained to me by my father. 

Leslie Martin took him under his wing and he became a very young group leader, enjoying greatly his collaboration with his contemporaries and lifelong friends the late Bryn Jones and John Attenborough. Much of their thinking happened over lunch and they tried to outdo each other in finding a better venue for good food. Together, they worked on the National Sport Centre at Crystal Palace, now listed, and it features in a new book on post war listed buildings - I was able to tell him this a few weeks ago. 

The curve on the façade of the Royal Festival Hall was to conserve some views to St Paul’s

In the same period he designed the National Film Theatre under Waterloo Bridge, and this kicked off work on a series of buildings, as he put it, ‘just out side the office’ at County Hall. At the time of the 1951 Festival of Britain the Royal Festival Hall has not been completed and its acoustics were famously dull; Norman led the completion of current frontage, the curve on the façade he told me being a way to conserve some views to St Paul’s as well as the rear and the re-working of the halls acoustics. He considered the most recent renovation by Allies and Morrison a great success and true to the original concept of creating a lively place, in an era of car/pedestrian separation then in vogue. 

Royal Festival Hall

Royal Festival Hall

This led to the next assignment working on the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, and adjacent Haywood Gallery. These involved travels to Europe to see and hear halls and opera houses, and discussion with amongst others, Wieland Wagner – no hardship to a man who loved classical music and opera. His talented team in this time included many architects who later became well-known in their own right including Ron Herron, Warren Chalk, Dennis Cropmton, Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell, and he regarded this as one of the most exciting and challenging periods of his life, not least standing up to the then architect to the council Hubert Bennett, a nice man but with less vision than these young turks.

This is why for example, the QEH has cast anodised aluminium windows instead of off-the-peg fenestration, and the seating in the hall is based on sports car bucket seats that don’t flip –up and clunk when a late comer arrives. He was really happy to see how this complex became a lively multi-level roof garden and commercial arts space – something that the GLC valuers of the day did not understand to his great frustration. He was named and this work shown at the Venice Architecture Biennalle curated by Rem Koolhass in 2012, a source of pride to him so long after the event, and he was pleased that Fielden Clegg Bradley were renovating and adding to the building rather than pulling it down. 

He moved over to town development and new challenges and at this time worked with Gordon Wigglesworth (father of Sarah), Philip Bottomly and others, who on their retirement formed the eating club IT for regular convivial meetings. Sadly only Philip and Brian Thaxton survive. He also worked with Michael Ellison, later president of the Landscape Institute, who introduced me to the profession. Dad liked his individual and querky sense of humour and a shared appreciation of music. 

After taking early retirement as he hated making reduction to staff, as Thatcher sought to remove the GLC, he carried on doing water colours and oil paintings, life drawings, as well as calligraphy, illumination, stained glass, some silver work, sign writing, and papier mache. He was a member of the Royal Photographic Society and for many years played a leading and rather competitive role in the Tunbridge Wells Photographic Society. He was also an accomplished classical guitarist and also arranged some music for that instrument. He also played the violin (often with me at the piano in my youth) and piano accordion (not least for my mother’s ‘old dears’ sing-alongs at the rainbow club in Tunbridge Wells. He also rang bells, taught by my brother Oliver who used to be bell captain at Hever Church. 

He missed, my mother massively after she died in 2006. They had met 61 years before this at a VE day dance at the pub of a school friends dad (Colin Chapman was later the founder/designer of Lotus Sports Cars), they married in 1949. Pat was always quietly supportive of Norman from the outset. They had four children - Jane, who died 1959 of leukemia, John who died suddenly 2 months ago, myself and my brother Oliver. His generation are now reduced to his brother Bern, and his cousin Jean. I will really miss him.

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