The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Norman Engleback

by Luke Engleback

My father Norman Engleback played a significant role in the LCC Architects Department in the 1950s and 60s, and was, according to Jonathan Glancey in his book Twentieth Century Architecture (1999), one of the ‘Young Turks’ of that department.

He came from humble beginnings, as he recalled in an interview about his life which is preserved in the British Library. In 1943 he got a job in the LNER drawing office at King’s Cross, and for four years was involved in rebuilding bombed railway structures, as well as learning a clear and careful but rapid drawing technique. He told me recently that his first building was a signal box near Mile End. At the same time, he studied architecture at evening classes at the Northern Polytechnic. He was inspired by traditional Chinese architecture, on which he wrote his thesis. A modernist and a socialist, he always looked for ‘less is more’, and he greatly admired the work of Le Corbusier: it was a revelation being taken to the chapel at Ronchamp when I was nine years old and having him explain it to me.

On leaving LNER he worked for Armstrongs, an established practice, and then – more excitingly for him – under Tony Cox at ACP (Architects Co-Partnership). He began his career at the LCC in 1952. His first major project was Elm Court School in Lambeth which got him noticed by Leslie Martin, architect to the Council, because it was efficient and flexible as well as costing a third less per head than the norm. Martin took him under his wing, and he became a very young group leader, greatly enjoying his collaboration with his contemporaries and lifelong friends, the late Bryn Jones and John Attenborough. Much of their thinking happened over lunch, and they tried to outdo each other in finding venues with good food. Together, they worked on the National Sports Centre (1960-64) at Crystal Palace, and I was able to tell him a few weeks before he died that this features in the new edition of Elain Harwood’s Post-War Listed Buildings.

In the same period he designed the National Film Theatre under Waterloo Bridge, and this kicked off work on a series of buildings, as he put it, ‘just outside the office’ at County Hall. After the 1951 Festival of Britain, Norman led the completion of the Royal Festival Hall, including the current frontage (the curved façade being, he told me, a way of preserving some views to St Paul’s), the rear, and the re-working of the hall’s notoriously dull acoustic. He considered the most recent renovation by Allies and Morrison a great success, and true to the original concept of creating a lively place at a time when car/pedestrian separation was in vogue.

This led to the next assignment: the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, and adjacent Hayward Gallery. This involved travel to Europe to see and hear halls and opera houses, and discussions with, among others, Wieland Wagner – no hardship to a man who loved classical music and opera. His talented team at this time included many architects who later became well-known in their own right, including Ron Herron, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell. He regarded this as one of the most exciting and challenging periods of his life, not least because it involved standing up to Hubert Bennett, then architect to the Council and a nice man but with less vision than these ‘Young Turks’. His intervention with Bennett explains why, for example, the QEH has cast anodised aluminium windows instead of off-the-peg fenestration, and why its seating is based on sports-car bucket seats that don’t flip up and clunk when a latecomer arrives. He was really happy to see how the complex became a lively multi-level roof garden and commercial arts space – something that, to his frustration, the GLC valuers of the day did not understand. The work was shown at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Rem Koolhass, a source of great pride to him so long after the event, and he was also pleased that Feilden Clegg Bradley’s plans for the Southbank Centre involve renovating and adding to the building rather than pulling it down.

In the early 1970s he moved over to town development and to new challenges, at this time working with Gordon Wigglesworth (father of Sarah), Philip Bottomley and others who on retirement formed the convivial eating club, IT. Sadly, of that group, only Philip and Brian Thaxton are still living. He also worked with Michael Ellison, later president of the Landscape Institute, who introduced me to the profession. The nascent GLC landscape team in his section worked on (later abandoned) plans to transform Swindon into a new city between London and Bristol, and other town expansion schemes.

He took early retirement because he hated making staff cuts, at a time when Margaret Thatcher was seeking to abolish the GLC. He filled his time with watercolours and oil paintings, life drawings, as well as calligraphy, illumination, stained glass, some silver work, sign writing, and papier maché. He was a member of the Royal Photographic Society, and for many years played a leading and rather competitive role in the Tunbridge Wells Photographic Society. He was an accomplished classical guitarist and also played the violin (often with me at the piano in my youth) and piano accordion. He also rang bells, taught by my brother Oliver who used to be bell-captain at Hever Church.

My mother Pat was always quietly supportive of Norman, and he missed her hugely after she died in 2006. They had met 61 years earlier at a VE-Day dance at a pub run by the father of a school-friend, Colin Chapman (later the founder/designer of Lotus sports-cars). They married in 1949, and had four children: Jane, who died in 1959; John, who died suddenly last year, having cared selflessly for Dad for many years; Oliver and myself. We will really miss him.

Norman Engleback, born 5 October 1927, died 4 December 2015.