The Twentieth Century Society

Obituaries: David Gray

by Neave Brown

David Gray, socially committed architect, craftsman, teacher, collector and family man, died of mesothelioma on 13 March 2014. Everything, from the smallest model to the greatest building, he did in the same way, creatively and with a fierce involvement.

David was born in Great Yarmouth in 1930, and the family lived in Lowestoft, where his father was a bank manager. When he was a boy, his uncle bought him a microscope, and he made slides and precise drawings, showing early on his love of close observation and absolute commitment to getting things right. He made miraculously small models of old sailing ships with full sails and rigging, pulled upright in a bottle and corked, just like the old sailors did.

After National Service he went to the AA in 1950, together with Patrick Hodgkinson, Kenneth Frampton, John Miller, Adrian Gale (quite a group) and me (we shared a flat). Post-war, we felt that things should start afresh and that modernist architecture was indispensable in the creation of a new and more equal society. For David it became a lifetime commitment.

There was a reductive aspect to that modernism, but not for him. At the small flat, he began to collect – amass – things: chairs, stools, objects, Viennese Thonet furniture and the famous Breuer chaise longue. When his room was full, things overflowed into the hall. It became almost impossible when he was joined by Ilse, whom he later married. Immediately after the AA, they moved to a small house in Kentish Town – quickly filled with more stuff – and had a daughter, Alice.

David designed his first building, the Gulland House, while still a student. It was beautiful and modest, like the work of a mature architect. It was as if the site generated the building group from outside, and the building related to it all from within. It achieved the new kind of integration that students and young architects were all working towards. He then worked for Erno Goldfinger, who recruited him after seeing the Gulland House, before joining Lyons Israel and Ellis (LIE) in 1957 together with Jim Stirling, James Gowan, Alan Colquhoun, John Miller and me. David worked on some of their notable buildings including the Barnsley College of Mining and Technology. It had a large classroom and workshop block with an unlikely concrete lump of lecture theatres on the top – a virtuoso complex. He had the ability to conceive the unlikely and make it normal, but, unusually for someone with such talent, he was orderly and methodical and drove everyone mad by writing everything down in the correct order.

The problem was that buildings take a long time, and we were impatient. In 1959, H J Whitfield Lewis, until then chief housing architect at the London County Council, became Chief Architect to Middlesex County Council, with a big schools programme. Eager for new experience, David and I left LIE the following year and joined it. I was lucky, and designed five schools; David was unlucky with his group leader, and had a hard time.

One year later LIE knew what they needed, and invited David back. They had been commissioned to design the National Sea Training College at Gravesend and the office was already overstretched, so David returned as a senior assistant. The College was his first major public building: a large and isolated establishment on the windswept levels by the Thames at Gravesend. The inevitability of the finished building’s appearance disguises its originality. Technically inventive and without any gestural display, it was also beautiful. He finally became a full partner in 1970 and worked there until the practice closed in 1984 – over 28 years in all – completing a series of notable buildings and making often vital contributions to those of his partners.

David was immersed in architectural education all his life, at the AA, at the Regents Street Polytechnic, and at Bath and Cardiff Universities. Soon after qualifying he started teaching and lecturing and taking part in student crits. In 1981, we ran a Unit – a group of students at the AA – after the return from the USA of Alvin Boyarsky as Chairman. After I left, David continued his Unit, with David Shalev and then the architect and artist Kisa Kawakami, until 1993, two years after the closure of the practice. With Alvin’s approval, he took on diploma students, often the brightest, who had difficulty settling into any of the often idiosyncratic unit groups, a task for which he was ideally suited. He was also often called to other schools for crits and tutoring, including at Bath where I was teaching.

He was a wonderful tutor. His quiet patience masked his intuitive grasp of what the student wanted, what the situation needed, and how to get there. He never told students what to do, but sat patiently with them, sometimes coaxing, sometimes sketching, sometimes making them uncomfortable and thus eager to act, so that the developing scheme emerged fully as the student’s own. Many remained friends for years. He encouraged women architects and among his students were Eldred Evans and Patty Hopkins.

When in 1990 Boyarsky, the much-loved and charismatic but difficult head of the AA, became ill, David was his choice to become acting head while a successor was found. David managed to continue teaching while running the chairman’s office with a small dedicated team. He kept things steady in a difficult time. After he stopped teaching in 1993 he remained involved with the AA. In 2013 they recognised his contribution by, to his great delight, awarding him honorary life membership.

David was active in the community for fifty years. He and Ilse and their children had moved from Harmood Street to Primrose Hill and he was a school governor and a member of the Primrose Hill Conservation Committee. In the 1990s they took a house in France, south of Toulouse, and both houses became miracles of idiosyncratic personal expression. If he liked something, he loved it, and if he could get it, he got it. On walls, above doors, on shelves, in corners, on the floor, everywhere, were plates, pots, glass, drawing instruments, corkscrews, his ships in bottles and architectural models, many books and lots of art. Of the 24 pieces of Thonet furniture displayed at the 2003 exhibition History of Modern Design in the Home, David lent 22, still leaving plenty at home. He read widely, and knew the background of modern architecture and art inside out. He was articulate with a sharp, quiet wit, but if aroused (which was seldom) he could be devastating.

He is survived by Ilse, their two children Alice and Adam and three grandchildren.

David Gray, born 25 April 1930, died 13 March 2014.