The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Professor Sir Colin Stansfield Smith

by Geraint Franklin

Colin Stansfield Smith, who has died aged 80, will be remembered for bringing the pursuit of excellence back to public architecture at a time when its reputation was at a low point. When he became Architect to Hampshire County Council in 1973, he discovered a systemic yet un-coordinated approach to the public estate, characterised by ‘repeat designs’, prefabrication, serial contracts and industrial quantities of chain-link fencing. In the rush to turn out school places, the totality of the school environment had been overlooked. For Stansfield Smith, it was nothing less than a betrayal of the social impetus of the Modern movement of which he considered himself part.

Over the following 19 years, Stansfield Smith’s team gained an international reputation with a clutch of engaging, imaginative and singular designs. Some, like FourLanesPrimary   School, WoodleaPrimary School or the sadly-demolished BurnhamCopse Infant School, animated their suburban surroundings with traditional materials and big roofs which reinterpreted tithe barns and other vernacular types. There were also shiny and hard-edged designs such as Rookwood Infant School and Queens Inclosure Middle School. The variety of nicknames coined by pupils and local residents – tipi, circus tent, roundhouse, oast house, chapter house, magic roundabout –suggested that the Hampshire team had succeeded in realising evocative and inspirational learning environments. Landscaping, works of art, environmental design and Victorian village schools all found their champions at Hampshire.

Stansfield Smith, a tall and charismatic figure, was a shrewd political operator and a persuasive performer in committee, securing the backing of a solidly Tory council. Although an accomplished designer in his own right (as his library at Chandler’s Ford attests), perhaps more significant was his ability to nurture design talent, creating a meritocratic and indeed competitive office. Indeed, in his hands the Architect’s Department took on something of the atmosphere of an atelier or a school of architecture. The team was reorganised by region, not building type, so that collaboration with planners became easier and each designer would be stimulated by unfamiliar challenges. Former colleagues recall design crits from ‘the chief’, life drawing classes and architectural competitions. A bi-annual sculpture exhibition was held at the Winchester Great Hall and from 1976 presentation drawings and Alan Cooper’s beautiful models were entered at the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (‘My God, did that give us a boost’, he recalled). The office was gingered up by the practice, perhaps remembered from LCC days, of handing out a few commissions to ‘big name’ architects such as Ted Cullinan, Michael Hopkins, Richard MacCormac and Peter Aldington, or bringing in structural engineers like Tony Hunt, Tony Pritchard and Ted Happold.

Colin Stansfield Smith was born at Didsbury in Greater Manchester and attended William Hulmes Grammar School in the city. After National Service in the Intelligence Corps, he studied Architecture at CambridgeUniversity under Leslie Martin and Alex Hardy. Spare time was devoted to acting and cricket (including county cricket for Lancashire and winning a Cambridge ‘blue’). After striking out at the Schools Division of the LCC Architect’s Department in 1958-60, Stansfield Smith joined Emberton Tardrew and Partners, working mostly on housing, and becoming a partner in the firm. Then in 1971 he was headhunted for the post of deputy at Cheshire County Council by county architect Jack Whittle, a former client at Emberton Tardrew. With local government reorganisation in 1973, ‘the world changed’, as Colin put it, not least bringing him the crucial career break at Hampshire. From 1983 to 1986 Stansfield Smith served as vice president of the RIBA, where he promoted public architecture as the ‘visible shop window of an enlightened local authority’.

Stansfield Smith was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 1991 and a knighthood followed in 1993. By then he was inspiring a new generation of architects as a full-time Professor of Architecture at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Architecture. In 1996 the School moved into the bright, open studios of his Portland Building. His interest in architectural education extended beyond Hampshire and in 1997-99 he chaired a RIBA review which called for major reforms to address the ‘disconnections’ between practice and academia. He continued to design schools in private practice, notably collaborating with John Pardey Architects on a series of projects including a John Lewis store in Cambridge. Stansfield Smith remained a champion of school design, defending John Bancroft’s Pimlico School and warning in 2011 that ‘reading the James Review is like experiencing déjà vu; a thoroughly depressing repeat of what we did in the 1950s and 1960s’. His legacy at Hampshire – an enriched public estate and a thriving in-house design team – presents an alternative vision.

He is survived by his wife, Angela, and their children, Oliver and Sophie.

Colin Stansfield Smith, born 1 October 1932, died 19 June 2013.