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Peter Murray on Michael Manser: A quest to inject human qualities into Modernism

Michael 1 crop
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Following Michael Manser’s death earlier this month, Peter Murray remembers the acclaimed architect and and champion of high-quality housing

Michael Manser is best known for a series of Modernist homes he designed in the 60s and 70s, and for encouraging younger designers through the Manser Medal, which until 2015 was awarded by the RIBA for exemplary house design. I say this pointedly because in conversation with Michael a couple of days before his death he bemoaned the fact that his name would instead forever be associated with the Prince of Wales’s intervention in the architectural debate.

The prince made his ‘carbuncle’ comments at the RIBA’s 150th anniversary celebrations at Hampton Court, which Michael hosted as then RIBA president. Not only was the prince unforgivably rude in voicing such critical comments when he was an honoured guest of the institute, he overshadowed the Royal Gold Medal presentation to Charles Correa and he expressed views that could not have been more diametrically opposed to Michael’s.

If you want an old-looking house it is more satisfactory to buy an old one for there are plenty available

Writing as early as April 1960 Michael summed up his own approach: ‘A rather disappointing trend has been to build homes with Regency or Georgian facades … to my mind it is a move in the wrong direction, because it restricts the possibilities of modern design. If you want an old-looking house it is more satisfactory to buy an old one for there are plenty available.’

His key influence was Mies, although he was determined to inject a human and intimate quality into his own work. He described Mies’s Farnsworth House as ‘an intellectual composition … logical and severe – suitable for second homes for rich clients but not for family life.’

Michael trained at Regent Street Polytechnic and worked for Clifford Tee and Gale and John Stammers of Reigate before moving to Norman and Dawbarn, one of the largest practices of the day. The firm’s work included Gatwick and Birmingham airports and the BBC Television Centre. Michael was also a busy writer. While working full time as an architect, he delivered a fortnightly column for The Observer, a monthly piece for Architectural Design and the odd news story for the AJ.

It was a piece for this magazine in 1958 that was to change his life. He was offered a job in Jamaica, where Norman and Dawbarn was working on a number of major projects. The AJ asked him for a piece about his new home and he duly wrote a critical article about how the British colonial government was splashing out on building projects to appease the locals.

The article arrived, was published on a Thursday, and on the Friday Michael received a telegram from his employers, nervous that this outspokenness would lose them work, telling him to get on the next plane home.

Manser home mag

Manser home mag

Home magazine featuring Manser’s self-built home, photographed with plastic daffodils

On their return, he and wife José found a flat in Leatherhead next to an empty orchard site on which Michael was determined to build a family home. The result was Golden Grove, a glazed, flat-roofed structure with the rooms surrounding a central courtyard. Much of it was built by Michael with his own hands. The building was photographed with the couple’s two small children playing in the garden among apple trees and daffodils. The setting gave a relaxed and soft look to the house; the shoot took place in September so the photographer used plastic daffodils. ‘But it looked pretty good, and the photo was published all over the world,’ Michael would recall.

Surely by now there should be a better way of building houses than by laboriously piling 20,000 bricks one on top of the other

This led on to a series of houses over the next decade or so. While his first houses used timber construction to save on cost, he soon started to move into steel. In Home magazine Michael wrote: ‘This is the 20th century; surely by now there should be a better way of building houses than by laboriously piling 20,000 bricks one on top of the other. Surely this is the way houses should be built in this day and age. Cars are stamped out by the dozen, jet liners fly the Atlantic in five hours, but house-building still takes as long – if not longer! – than it did 100 years ago.’

His Capel Manor House in Horsmonden in Kent of 1969 was probably his most important house and was listed Grade II* in 2013. The lightness of the architecture is enhanced by mullion-free corners giving the impression, said Michael, of ‘living outside: the wallpaper is the scenery’. But he was becoming aware that he was too well known as an architect of individual homes when what he craved was a ‘a building site with a crane on it’.

Manser pp goldengrove img 16 882x560

Manser pp goldengrove img 16 882x560

Golden Grove by Michael Manser

Things changed in 1974 when his practice was commissioned to design an extension to the listed Thorncroft Manor, Leatherhead, built in 1772 by Robert Taylor. Manser designed a steel-frame building, clad in mirror glass, which provided a modern setting to the 18th-century facade. Other key buildings followed such as the Hilton Hotel at Terminal 4 – more High Tech than Mies – and the Diplomatic Mission building in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Today the practice, run by son Jonathan, covers a wide range of projects: hotels, infrastructure, healthcare, offices and education buildings and a consistent, and increasing flow of individual houses.

Michael is survived by his wife José, a leading design writer and author, his son Jonathan and his daughter Victoria, also an architect.

Peter Murray is chair of New London Architecture and author of Manser Houses

Manser selected works

Manser selected works

Selected works of Michael Manser


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