The Twentieth Century Society

Obituaries: Brian Henderson

by Alan Powers

Born in Edinburgh, the son of a banker and schoolteacher, Brian Henderson always knew that he wanted to be an architect. After studying at Edinburgh and working briefly with Basil Spence, he moved to London, where even the moderate glamour of the 1950s seemed like a revelation of new possibilities. National Service in the Royal Engineers at Suez was distinguished by his construction of a comfortable and stylish wooden cabin inside his standard-issue tent – permitted by his commanding officer on condition that he got one, too.

Back in London, Henderson’s real career began in 1955 when he was recruited by F R S Yorke to work on Gatwick Airport, alongside David Allford. The New Statesman-carrying duffle-coated Allford looked suspiciously at the newcomer, a ‘Chelsea Charlie’ in a tight-cut Edwardian suit with lapels on the waistcoat. Allford had proposed a concrete airport in the manner of Auguste Perret, but Yorke rejected this in favour of Henderson’s Miesian steel look. They worked together at high speed to meet the completion date and royal opening in 1958. The building was a major step in transforming the soft modernism that Yorke and his partners, Eugene Rosenberg and Cyril Mardall, had been practising since they came together in 1944. On the completion of the airport, Yorke promoted his bumptious junior stars to partnership, planning the succession of the firm beyond his early death from cancer of the throat in 1962.

Allford and Henderson were natural pupils at Yorke’s school of life, and Henderson liked to pass its lessons on to others. Architecture was certainly important, but the aim was to conceal its complexity and achieve a sort of classical calm, whether with the characteristic white tile finishes that the firm began to use around 1960, or, as was often the case in Henderson’s projects, steel frames and enamelled cladding panels. In a manner reflecting Yorke’s roots in the Arts & Crafts movement, they were buildings for which the word ‘decent’ would be more apt than ‘stunning’ or ‘cutting edge’. As Warren Chalk put it in a review of the firm’s work, this was ‘modernism worn slightly below the knee’. Their architecture was driven by convictions rather than theories, and the large practice that became known as YRM specialised in technical know-how and effective delivery.

Beyond architecture, Yorke set an example of enjoying the pleasures of life and nature, travelling widely and making foreign contacts, and collecting modern art and commissioning it for clients, an interest shared by Rosenberg. While many of the projects were public sector buildings in Britain, for education, housing, health and the electricity industry, YRM was also adept at acquiring commercial clients for factories and offices, which helped them to weather the collapse of state patronage in the 1980s.

America was undoubtedly Henderson’s architectural lodestone. At the end of the 1960s, he collaborated with Bruce Graham of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in the design of an office block, D90, on the Boots site at Beeston, a dark steel Miesian Parthenon with a pioneering open office plan within – Henderson had already won competitions for the design of office furniture and fittings. This was followed by another collaboration on the Wills factory and offices at Hartcliffe, Bristol, using Corten steel on a massive scale in a newly created arcadian landscape. The office building was saved by listing but compromised when converted to housing by Urban Splash.

Henderson became chairman of YRM, by then a publicly quoted company, just before the recession of the 1990s, weathering financial and architectural change with some difficulty from the red steel command post of their Britain Street offices. After retirement, he became better known as the father of another Clerkenwell pioneer, the restaurateur Fergus Henderson.

Brian Henderson, born 15 October 1928, died 19 June 2014.