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Obituary: Tate St Ives architect David Shalev

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Gordon Benson remembers architect David Shalev, who has died aged 83

Shalev was an architect virtually unknown by the general public – other than for the 1993 Tate St Ives gallery – but is regarded by his peers as one of the most innovative and talented architects of his generation.

Together with his domestic and professional partner Eldred Evans, he developed more than 150 projects between 1965 and 2008. The body of work ranges from individual houses to a city for over 2 million people on the Solent, which, given the current crisis in the South East, merits serious reconsideration.

Qualitatively, the work is recognised as the equivalent of anything built anywhere during this period. Uniformly innovative and elegant, it includes: housing, schools, libraries, music academies, an opera house, galleries, law courts, botanical gardens, plus masterplans for the river front at Glasgow, Bath university, and Tate.

The respect for their work within the profession became apparent when their first seminal work Newport High School School, which they won in an international competition in 1967, was threatened with demolition. The Royal Academy of Architects immediately prepared a powerfully argued objection documenting the international, educational and historic importance of this cultural masterwork, and delivered this to the Welsh Assembly. Unfortunately, this did not prevent demolition and the construction of a banal replacement.

Tate St Ives

Tate St Ives

Tate St Ives

The Modernism of Shalev and Evans is more closely aligned to the Modernism of James Joyce and TS Eliot than to the doctrinaire modernism of post-war Britain. It was enriched by their encyclopaedic understanding to the architecture of the past, stripped of historicist association or affectation. Eldred was exposed to this cultural perspective from birth through her artist father, Merlyn Evans, and her mother Marjory Few, an accomplished pianist and again when she studied at the Architectural Association. An Israeli, David was educated in what was in reality the ‘evolved Bauhaus’ in Haifa, where he was surrounded with modernism counterpointed with an ancient tradition.

They began working together in London in the early 1960s, and also taught separately: Eldred at what has now become Westminster University and David at the Architectural Association, where the prevailing culture was late Modernism. Abroad, Le Corbusier was reinventing the section and typology of Venice for the hospital in that city. Elsewhere he was reworking traditional typologies: the monastery and the church, and the Parthenon in Chandigarh.

Through Europe the traditional urban continuities had been reclaimed by Scandinavian modernism, evident in the work of Aalto. The early Modernist notion of figural free-standing blocks in a field of indeterminate ownership had replaced the notion of enriched Modernist architecture integrated into an updated 18th and 19th century urban figure, ie walls of buildings defining figural streets, squares and gardens.

Courts of Justice, Truro: the waiting area serving the Crown Courts

Courts of Justice, Truro: the waiting area serving the Crown Courts

Source: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

Courts of Justice, Truro: the waiting area serving the Crown Courts by Evans and Shalev (1988)

Within the vast landscape of David Shalev’s work it is possible to identify durable and evolving constants: the ability to invent or uncover unprecedented solutions which paradoxically appear to have always been a part of or sit comfortably with the timeless tradition. This renewal or reinvention of architecture is extremely rare but can be identified in many of their projects.

Their invention appears to grow effortlessly out of the programmatic or purposeful imperatives of type and its dialectic other place, genius loci. This simultaneous synchronisation of thingness/placeness and interior/exterior anchors the proposition to its site and reveals the unseen poetics of location. One striking example is the way in which the mute landscape of the Newport School was transformed into a series of interconnected courtyards, terraces and public squares linking the arrival to a reclaimed arcadian landscape and diverted river.

The tail-side of this approach is that the interiors become sequences of memorable places with distinct identities (animated by the dynamics of light), reinforced with pertinent internal and external vistas.

In a lecture explaining aspects of his work, David cited Leon Battista Alberti’s Renaissance truth, ‘the city is like a great house, and the house in its turn a small city’. At its simplest this reminds us that constructs are both singularities and a compound of other singularities. The city, house (building) are dialectically composed of places which have their own identity and are components of an aggregate identity … extending indefinitely to include that which lies outside the compound identity: the site/genius loci.

Riba33373 Newport High School (formerly Bettws High School), Bettws Lane, Newport, Gwent

Riba33373 Newport High School (formerly Bettws High School), Bettws Lane, Newport, Gwent

Source: RIBA Collections

Newport High School (formerly Bettws High School), Bettws Lane, Newport, Gwent - 1970

Returning again to Newport School, the brief was without precedent for an abnormally large school with 1,760 pupils and staff. The building is organised around a grid of two longitudinal and eight transverse covered streets. Within the grid, two-storey step-section house units (which function as classrooms throughout the day) are organised around a naturally lit courtyard which climbs up to a continuous roof terrace. These house units are the social fulcrum of the school – ‘houses’ within the ‘city’.

The cross-axes connect the houses to the specialist ‘workspaces’ – art studios, laboratories, wood/metal/pottery/IT. The longitudinal axes link all of the functions to the main square of the (city) school which is defined by the auditorium, gymnasium, swimming pool and staff accommodation. The square functions as the main portal to the school, and landscape which it addresses.

The interiors of the houses designed for Broadclyst, Camden Square and Palmerston are organised vertically on four levels around a roof-lit central void above the living area. All of the spaces can elect to relate to the public heart of the house without loss of privacy or reinforce their independence by turning their back on the atrium and addresses the exterior: terrace or horizon.

The juxtaposition of the spatial whole and component spaces provides perceptual continuity, spaciousness and a sense of scale, which is absent in the miniature spaces of contemporary housing. Operationally the potential independence/connectivity allows the houses to be adaptable short term and flexible over the life of a family. The inner light source allows sunlight to filter through the interior regardless of orientation.

Regrettably none of these houses have been constructed but, like the Solent city, they remain a magnificent prototype for any young architect.

Design for a home for the physically disabled, 48 Boundary Road, London: axonometric of an accessible physiotherapy pool featuring a wheelchair ramp

Design for a home for the physically disabled, 48 Boundary Road, London: axonometric of an accessible physiotherapy pool featuring a wheelchair ramp

Source: RIBA Collections

Design for a home for the physically disabled, 48 Boundary Road, London: axonometric of an accessible physiotherapy pool featuring a wheelchair ramp

David was an integral component of the Architectural Association and later in the Bath School of Architecture, where he was respected and liked by staff and students.

He was a superb tutor. His unique combination of empathy and analytical clarity together with a limitless reservoir of all historical precedents and exemplars stripped back to their conceptual essence meant that he was respected, trusted and invaluable to all of the students, wherever they were with their designs.

On one occasion he recommended that my partner and I visit and study the urban armature of Chester: the grid, cross-section, city wall and canal. Six years later this informed one of our early housing projects.

Subsequently he proposed that we visit, sketch and photograph the experiential unfolding of Castle Howard and Vanbrugh’s reinvention of the north riding of Yorkshire – and consider this as a work in progress for the scenographic choreography in the capital of Chandigarh – its monumental fragments and the Himalayas.

Tutorials took two distinct forms. Method 1 consisted of a rigorous examination of the students’ propositions, methodically assessing the merit of the intent, the elegance with which this was realised, the degree to which this would be accessible internally and externally, how the ideas might be refined, and then, armed with this critique, iteratively reviewing the whole process.

Later when an operational method and empathetic bond had been established with the student, David would remain silent (or make minimal comment) and allow the student to see the scheme through the eyes of another. Over time this became the foundation of the students’ critical independence and architectural self-awareness. Occasionally studio conversations would make sense years later – ‘the school, the Greek port, Miletus … of course’.

Towards the end of his career it was still inconceivable that he might retire. Curious, I asked what he would do if he stopped working. Thinking for a moment, he replied: ‘I would visit all of the Aalto buildings in the order in which they were built. Then I would visit all of the Le Corbusier buildings in the order in which they were built.’ The thought expressed, his face relaxed into his monumental smile.

Carved into the lintel above the entrance to the medical faculty where Freud studied is the Latin wisdom: ‘In order to be a good doctor you must first be a good man’. This ethical imperative applies, of course to all professions. David Shalev was unequivocally ‘a good man’ and an inspiring architect.

Gordon Benson is a founding director of Benson + Forsyth Architects

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