The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: John Madin

by Alan Clawley

John Madin was born in Moseley, Birmingham, in 1924, the only child of William, a master builder and cabinetmaker who taught young Madin bricklaying and carpentry, and Hilda, who was very artistic and encouraged her son to draw and paint. The Madins lived in a detached Victorian villa in Yardley Wood Road, Moseley, where father and son built a conservatory and an extension together. Madin went to Stanley House School in Edgbaston, and by the age of 12 was convinced that he had to be an architect.

On leaving school at 16 in 1940, Madin found a job in the Corporation architect’s offices in the Council House in Birmingham city centre, where one of his duties was taking the City Engineer Herbert Manzoni (1899–1972) his lunch while he sat next to the large coal fire in his office. When Birmingham was bombed in 1940, Madin did fire-watch duty from the clock tower, from where he could see most of the city centre and mark on a map where the bombs had fallen. Encouraged by Manzoni, Madin began his studies in the autumn of 1940 at the Birmingham School of Architecture, then part of the School of Art in Margaret Street, close to the Council House. In 1942, towards the end of the second year of his course, Madin decided with two fellow students to volunteer for the RAF. After six months’ training he was told he could not be a pilot because of a defect in his night vision, so he joined the Royal Engineers. He was first a Lieutenant in India and Iraq, and then a Staff Captain in the Royal Engineers in Egypt. There he supervised German prisoners of war, building service family villages by the Suez Canal until 1947.

After leaving the army Madin came back to Birmingham to find the centre of the city ‘in a terrible state, bombed out buildings, [with] sites in New Street and Corporation Street used for second-hand car sales’. He completed his course at the School of Architecture, with the experience of war in a foreign land and the sight of his depressed and damaged home city compelling him to create a better world. This was not only the optimism of youth and the enthusiasm of making a new start. From the Modern movement, by now well-established elsewhere if not in his home city, he acquired an aesthetic language that also spoke of a clean break with the past. His architectural training gave him the tools for the job. Madin’s student thesis was a housing project set by the school on the site of Edgbaston Golf Course. He proposed a single elegant tower in the centre of the site, carefully preserving the landscape which he felt so valuable, and presaging his later work, particularly that in Edgbaston.

In 1949, his final year of studies, Madin hitchhiked around Scandinavia with a fellow student and was extremely impressed with the Swedish version of Modernism, particularly the buildings he saw in Stockholm. He was given a letter of introduction to Frank Lloyd Wright, and went to meet him on a subsequent visit to America. In New York, Madin met Walter Gropius and recorded a conversation with him.

In 1956 he married Judith Jackson who was to be his lifelong companion. Their first home was in Lyttleton Road, Edgbaston, which Madin had converted in 1956 into three flats to his own designs. From 1960 to 1975 they lived with their son and two daughters in a house designed by Madin in St Georges Close, Edgbaston.

Madin formed the John Madin Design Group in 1967 and was its senior partner until 1975. During this time the practice was large enough to occupy three floors of 123 Hagley Road. Ian Standing, who started work in 1980 for the firm, recalls that Madin’s ambition was for the practice to be a hotbed of like-minded construction professionals; among others Ove Arup & Partners came to Birmingham and joined him as engineers for the Central Library. In 1970, Madin formed a second practice, with an office in Lausanne, Switzerland. He had been getting overseas commissions since 1966 and found it increasingly difficult to obtain exchange control permission to carry out work outside the UK. The problem came to a head in 1970 with a major commission from Yugoslavian television. From then on, the international practice was expanded with UK staff moving to Switzerland to work on commissions for other television centres and a string of leisure projects in France, Spain, Malta, Cyprus, Libya and the USA. In 1974 Madin decided to retire as the senior partner and  hand over the day-to-day running of the firm to his partners and associates. Some of the holiday village projects that Madin had designed on the Mediterranean islands were, however, frustrated by local regime changes and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Madin continued to practice under his own name and up to the time of his death was still supervising work on his holiday village development at Aberdyfi and taking a close interest in saving Birmingham Central Library from demolition.

In recognition of his contribution to the industrial life of his home city and region, RIBA West Midlands awarded Madin the 2005 Service to Industry Award. Ian Standing summed up his citation thus: ‘At a time when some of [Madin’s] buildings have already gone and others are under threat, it is timely to contemplate the career of Birmingham’s pre-eminent post-war architect. John was driven by a passion from his studies and architectural tours. He liked drama in his buildings, and had a strong sense for conceptual ideas, which show in the clarity of much of the finished work: he also had the rigour to pursue these through to completion. Above all he was committed to bringing modern design to his home city. He had a highly developed business sense which gave him a unique appeal to clients and in all he was a consummate ambassador for the practice.’

John Madin, born 23 March 1924, died 8 January 2012.

Published January 2012