Architect Barbara Weiss, who has campaigned against the boom in tall buildings, pays tribute to her ‘unlikely’ friend Tony Pidgley – the pro-skyscraper driving force at housebuilder Berkeley, who died last week
I remember very clearly the circumstances of my first encounter with Tony Pidgley, who died tragically, and unexpectedly, on 26 June.
It occurred almost exactly three years ago, following one of Margaret Howell’s Open House soirees at the back of her very stylish Wigmore Street shop. It is to this unusual venue that small but select audiences flock, eagerly, once a year, to listen to a variety of speakers debate the latest topics to have captured the headlines and the public’s imagination.
That evening it was all about the raging controversy surrounding building on the Green Belt – a subject matter that I was later to learn meant a lot to Tony, owning, as Berkeley Homes do, many sites within this designation.
A year earlier, in that same room, it had been my turn, as co-founder of the Skyline Campaign, to give a talk about the organisation’s objectives. I was given free rein to lambast the proliferation of inappropriate, overly tall buildings in London (including several by Berkeley Homes) and to condemn the irreversible damage these inflict on our capital’s character and architectural heritage.
Having been told that Tony Pidgley, then an active trustee of Open House, might attend my talk, I was - somewhat cowardly - very relieved when I realised that he was not in the room.
Seeing Tony at the Green Belt event was a reminder of the fact that I still hadn’t found a way to approach him in person, to challenge him directly about the impact of Berkeley’s many tall buildings on London’s skyline. There was no doubt in my mind that Tony was at the very top of my list of those I longed to try and persuade that mid-rise, high density housing typologies were far better alternatives to the ubiquitous ‘iconic’ steel and glass towers - if London was to retain its unique and precious identity.
This was a unique opportunity, and despite much trepidation I decided to make the most of it, much as I did not expect anything to come from an inevitably brief, and probably awkward, conversation. More than anything, I did not expect to like Tony.
To my great amazement, Tony Pidgley in person was totally different from what I had anticipated: charming, friendly and receptive. To my even greater astonishment, he was not only knowledgeable about the Skyline Campaign, but also about my own architectural activities. He immediately suggested that we should meet.
From the very start of our rather extraordinary relationship, a pattern was established. Time and time again, Tony surprised me with his reactions, coming up with ideas or suggestions that were unexpected, exciting and challenging. He ‘got it’ immediately, but also always wanted to know more. He had his own position and strong views, of course, but was also open to new concepts, and happy to comment from his own exceptional and unique experience and frame of reference.
He had warned me that we had to ‘agree to disagree’ about tall buildings
Over the last three years we met on a good number of occasions, and we corresponded regularly, our emails ranging over numerous subjects. Housing, place-making, the vagaries of planners and of the planning system, and the politics of the day, were topics he came back to, time and time again. But his emails and our conversations, touchingly, were also consistently about his life, his family, and his great ambition to help others and make life better for those he could touch.
From our very first meeting he had warned me that we had to ‘agree to disagree’ about tall buildings. He also told me that he firmly believed that it was a good thing if people with opposing ideas and agendas worked together. Those were his ground rules for our meetings, ones that I accepted, trusting that he did indeed understand and respect my position.
It was a discussion about one’s duty to leave a built legacy to be proud of that led Tony to suggest we should work together on what, from then on, was referred to as our ‘experiment’.
The ‘experiment’s brief and ensuing concept soon became a very absorbing focus for me, generating many happy hours of thought and design on a large variety of topics, ranging from urban form to architectural styles, from societal changes and priorities to environmental challenges – all subjects very much front of Tony’s mind.
The idea was to create a new type of dense, mixed-use community, different to the traditional Berkeley Group model, with more flats than houses, shared communal facilities and gardens, and very simple, flexible, high quality architecture, sympathetic to context. This template aimed to create inter-generational, diverse, varied settlements that would offer a genuinely alternative lifestyle to both inner city or volume house-builder developments.
I discovered that Tony’s quicksilver mind reduced decision-making to a matter of seconds; that his over-arching love for nature meant that, in all design proposals, landscape was an essential component; and that his strong empathy for the younger generation, and for those who struggled financially, made him a generous proponent of quality housing that would also be affordable for a range of stretched households.
Tony’s quicksilver mind reduced decision-making to a matter of seconds
Never far from his mind, and, I suspect, informing a huge number of his daily decisions, were all the lessons, good and bad, that his extraordinary life had taught him. His respect for his adoptive parents, along with a deep appreciation of their moral compass and work ethic; his loyalty to the traveller community he grew up in; his great love of family, and his enlightened paternalism towards employees and customers – were all topics he referred to frequently, in what felt a very genuine, almost modest manner that eschewed sentimentality.
I have no doubt that Tony’s proudest achievements were linked to his philanthropic activities.
While this complex, exceptional man had many sides to him that I will never see or know, my own personal recollections, and his inimitable correspondence, will be treasured, as one always holds dearly those rare, privileged insights into unique and very special people.
While I will miss deeply our interactions, my thoughts are first and foremost with Tony’s beloved family, his adored wife, and his children of whom he was so proud.