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Obituary: Ted Cullinan (1931–2019)

Tedcullinan ©simonwarren
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Ted Cullinan was awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2008, but the real Cullinan gold is to be found in a sequence of buildings that, quite simply, belong, writes Jonathan Glancey

Peter Smithson, one of Ted Cullinan’s tutors at Cambridge, described the budding architect as ‘hand-knitted’. Which is both funny and true to his spirit. Yet through the warp and weft of Cullinan ran threads of steel, along with others of polycarbonate, wood fibre and wool. 

A warm and generous man, Cullinan proved to be an architect who could weave and forge ideas from very different approaches, styles and methods into convincing and even unprecedented buildings that, however rigorous or inventive, were rarely less than emotionally literate.

Maggies2 ©paulraftery

Maggies2 ©paulraftery

Source: Paul Raftery

Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre Newcastle

He did this from the outset of his long career. The house he and his wife, Roz, built by hand over two years in the early 60s in Camden, and which remained his life-long family home, was at once a happily intuitive design, an inspired infill development, and, before energy conservation was much talked about, an effective passive solar house. 

The Minster Lovell Conference Centre in Oxfordshire, completed in 1969, showed how a venerable stone barn could become a beautiful and modern Centre for Advanced Study into Developmental Science. 

Faced in the mid-1980s with a system-build school that, in other eyes, deserved demolition, Cullinan gave Calthorpe Park School at Fleet in Hampshire a new and greener life with a parasol-like over-roof, planting and pavilions. The nearby Farnborough Grange Junior School, another system-build job, couldn’t be saved. Cullinan replaced it with a gentle, if purposeful, school, completed in 1990 with fond echoes of Gropius and Fry’s late 1930s Impington Village College.

Then there was the Downland Gridshell, a 21st-century organic cathedral of sorts, shaped in a Sussex dell from a curving grid of supple green oak laths clad in red cedar shingles and lit by a polycarbonate clerestory. A workshop for conservation and training in the preservation of historic timber-framed buildings, this low-energy and wholly enchanting building was a work of engineering, craft, architectural and landscape sorcery. Small wonder festivals and weddings are held there.

Cullinan downshire crop credit richard learoyd

Cullinan downshire crop credit richard learoyd

Source: Richard Learoyd

Weald and Downland Gridshell, West Sussex, 2002

The Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge (2003) was a further revelation, a campus within a campus composed of visually enigmatic pavilions within a stepped and ever-so-slightly Alice in Wonderland city garden setting. Stephen Hawking enjoyed working there.

These exemplary Cullinan projects – and there were very many more over the decades (see timeline below)  – were the product of fecund collaboration with generations of talented colleagues in the architect’s studio, run as a co-operative, and with engineers, notably Arup and Buro Happold, and other professional and craft workers. They were also the product of Cullinan’s open-minded approach to what a particular building on a particular site might be. Somewhere in their subtle plans and sections, their appearance and sensibility, can be found traces of Schindler, Smithson, Aalto, Lasdun and Le Corbusier along with those of the ingenious planning, romantic elevations and highly focused workmanship of the Arts and Crafts movement. 

These exemplary projects were the product of fecund collaboration with generations of talented colleagues  

Born in London in 1931, Ted Cullinan was to become a socialist, although one mentored more by William Morris than Karl Marx. Morris he absorbed through a love of Arts and Crafts houses. From childhood he spent time at Ashford Chace, the Arts and Crafts Hampshire home (by William Frederick Unsworth and Inigo Triggs, 1908) of Lord ‘Tommy’ Horder, son of a Dorset draper, physician to King Edward VII, Georges V and VI and Elizabeth II and Cullinan’s maternal grandfather.

At his own Catholic family home in Park Square West, a Nash terrace in Regent’s Park, his senior physician father’s taste for Regency furniture and 18th-century glass contrasted with his mother’s fondness for modern design. A Slade School Gold Medallist, she furnished the nursery with her choice of furniture: the infant Ted was cradled by Aalto. 

Rmc crop ©richardlearoyd

Rmc crop ©richardlearoyd

Ready Mix Concrete International (now RMC Group) Headquarters, Surrey, 1990

Schooled at Ampleforth College, where drawing and art were, in Cullinan’s words, ‘for sissies’, National Service led to Queen’s, Cambridge, to rowing and to architecture. The AA followed, where he was taught by Denys Lasdun, John Killick, Arthur Korn, Leonard Manasseh and Peter Smithson, before California beckoned, a world for Cullinan of freedom after the restrictions of post-war England, of James Dean, Kerouac, a cruise down to Mexico in a ’49 Ford V8, hashish, and studies at Berkeley.

Back home, Cullinan worked briefly for RMJM before joining Denys Lasdun working on the design of the ziggurat student housing at UEA. In 1959 he set up on his own, by which time he had married Roz, daughter of Sopwith Camel air ace Victor Maslin Yeates, author of Winged Victory, a tale of aerial combat and the futility of war. Agnostic by this time, Cullinan was a peace-loving CND supporter. He and Roz raised a loving and talented family.

The Covent Garden studio of Edward Cullinan Architects founded in 1965 went its own way, a collaborative venture with time for teaching and a notably flat pay scale – no one in the office was to earn more than three times the salary paid to anyone else – and a sense of architecture as both a social duty and an adventure free of dogmatic prescription. 

In 2008 Cullinan, who died peacefully in his sleep, was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture. The real Cullinan gold – along with the concrete, polycarbonate, steel, timber, craft, sorcery and wool for hand knitting – is to be found in a sequence of buildings that, quite simply, belong.

Ted Cullinan timeline 

Uel ©marcgoodwin crop

Uel ©marcgoodwin crop

  • 1951 Aged 20, Cullinan attends the University of Cambridge, before studying at the AA and University of California, Berkeley
  • 1958 Works for Denys Lasdun on the University of East Anglia student residences and Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge. Sets up own practice a year later; it becomes a co-operative in 1965 
  • 1965 After completing the Marvin House in California for friends and the Horder House in Hampshire for his uncle Mervyn, he builds his own house at Camden Mews, London. It is Grade II*-listed in 2007
  • 1966-1969 Completes Garrett House, Eltham, London; House on the South Downs, Minster Lovell Mill Conference and Study Centre, Oxfordshire; and Maltings Chase, Suffolk. They are all later Grade II-listed
  • 1972 Designs new branches for Olivetti in Belfast, Carlisle, Derby and Dundee
  • 1984 Completes Uplands Conference Centre for Nationwide, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. It is Grade II-listed in 2014
  • 1990 Completes the Ready Mix Concrete International (now RMC Group) Headquarters. It is Grade II*-listed in 2014
  • 1992 Builds the Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre, Ripon, North Yorkshire
  • 1999 Builds University of East London Docklands Campus (pictured)
  • 2002 Downland Gridshell, Weald and Downland Living Museum, West Sussex completes. It is shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize
  • 2008 The RIBA awards Cullinan its Royal Gold Medal
  • 2013 Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre Newcastle opens
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