Biography of Sir Leslie Martin

The following is written by Peter Carolin

Sir Leslie Martin, 1908-2000

Martin, Sir (John) Leslie (1908–2000), architect, was born at 1 Briardene, Moston Lane, Failsworth, Manchester, on 17 August 1908, the son of Robert Martin (b. 1872), a Manchester and diocesan architect, and his wife, Emily, née Hilton.

As an educator, researcher and architect, Royal Gold Medallist Sir Leslie Martin left an indelible mark on Britain’s architectural history and culture.

Education and early career

Martin was educated at Manchester grammar school and studied architecture at the University of Manchester, where he was awarded an MA (1932) and a PhD (1936). Most unusually, he had entered the university directly into the third year of the course in architecture in 1926. He was awarded an honourable mention in the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Tite prize for 1929. This was followed a year later by the RIBA silver medal and the Soane medallion (the subject of which was the design of a sports club, undertaken by Martin in a somewhat neo-classical manner). While a student, Martin was strongly influenced by Samuel Alexander (1859–1938), author of Space, Time and Deity (1920) and former professor of philosophy at Manchester. In later life he often recalled a lecture in which Alexander observed that beauty in art is the product of human impulses and instincts and is an outgrowth from the instinct to construct—the human manifestation of what is rooted in the instincts of the bird, the beaver, and the bee. The beaver’s instincts are unreflective: if it knew why it constructed its dam, and could adapt this construction for different purposes, it would be a technician. But, Alexander observed, if it could build in such a way as to consider the resulting forms for their own sakes, it would be an architect. Martin also used to recall Alexander’s suggestion that the mass of architecture, with its link to practical purpose, should be the same as good prose writing, while the rest, designed for less common purposes, might, while sharing the same language, be regarded as poetry.

In 1926 Martin met a fellow architecture student, Sadie Speight (1906–1992), daughter of Alfred Speight, whom he married on 3 January 1935 and with whom he had two children: Susan (b. 1939) and Christopher, known as Kit (b. 1947). Years later, in his book Buildings and Ideas, 1933–83 (1983), Martin was to write, ‘My wife, Sadie Speight, has made her own very special contribution throughout the whole of my professional career’ (p. vi).

For half of his working life Martin not only practised architecture but also taught it. His first teaching post, in 1930, was as an assistant lecturer and master of elementary design at the University of Manchester. In 1934, at the age of twenty-six, he was appointed head of the school of architecture in the Hull College of Art, which the RIBA was keen to expand to serve the region. Initially there were only four full-time students, but he made much of the opportunity—attracting architects such as Serge Chermayeff, Maxwell Fry, and Marcel Breuer, the mathematician Jacob Bronowski, the artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and the critics Herbert Read and Morton Shand to lecture both to his students and to audiences at the city’s Ferens Art Gallery, where some also exhibited. Four years after his appointment the RIBA granted the enlarged school recognition up to its intermediate examination.

It was at this time that the Martins started collecting works by Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, with whom Martin also edited Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, published in 1937. The aim of Circle was to show those works of architecture, painting, and sculpture that appeared to share a common idea and spirit. Two years later, inspired by Herbert Read, Martin and his wife published The Flat Book, a reference book on accessible modern domestic design in its broadest sense, from building and furniture to domestic equipment and cutlery. Martin enjoyed enduring friendships with Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Gabo. He often alluded to the critic Morton Shand (who introduced him to the delights of cultivating rare apple species) and to the influence of Winifred Nicholson and, in particular, her use of colour and materials.

Martin and Sadie Speight started in practice in 1933, and between 1935 and 1939 completed several conversions and small houses in the north of England. These included: extensions to a house at Brampton, Cumberland, for the art patron and collector Helen Sutherland; a house at Brampton, for another art patron, Alastair Morton of Morton Sundour and Edinburgh Weavers; the Robinson House, Ferriby, Yorkshire; and a small nursery school at Northwich (now Hartford), Cheshire. Martin later described this work as ‘modest, dispersed and built for private clients who were interested in a special problem on a special site’ (Martin, 202). Unusually in the modern movement, the houses were largely built of brick with some local stone: they have weathered well. The nursery school was the first example of Martin’s many investigations into a type of planning and construction of general application and, with its light frame and infill walls, almost certainly influenced some post-war school design. During this period of pre-war practice Martin also designed what he claimed to be the first range of unit furniture in Britain, for Messrs Rowntree of Scarborough.

Public commissions

In 1939 Martin resigned the headship at Hull and moved to London to work for the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) railway as principal assistant architect for a modernization and development programme directed by Lord Stamp and Sir Harold Hartley. However, with the advent of war, much of his time was spent in supervising the rapid repair of railway stations and other parts of the network damaged by bombing. In parallel with this, however, research and development continued on a systematic approach to the construction of railway stations and other buildings, including the reordering of existing stations. After the war this work expanded to embrace the whole field of design within the LMS railway system, ranging from staff residences to passenger catering, and from coach livery to cutlery.

Nationalization of the railways in 1948 brought the LMS programme to a halt, and in October of that same year Martin was appointed deputy architect to the London county council (LCC). Shortly before, Herbert Morrison, Labour politician and former leader of the LCC, had asked the architect to the council, Robert Matthew, whether a permanent concert hall could be constructed on the south bank site in time for the planned opening of the Festival of Britain in May 1951. With great courage (it was a time of desperate material shortages and there was no recent precedent for constructing a building of the proposed size and complexity), Matthew replied that it could. Martin was placed in charge of the project and rapidly built up a team with Peter Moro and Edwin Williams as his principal assistants. The major challenge was how to contain a large concert hall for 3000 together with all the necessary foyer and ancillary accommodation on a very small site. He resolved this with his ‘egg in a box’ solution: encasing the auditorium in a heavy, enclosing structure with glazed foyers and galleries and placing this centrally over the extensive foyers, bars, and restaurants below. On its completion, J. M. Richards described the hall as ‘something without precedent in this country and with very little precedent elsewhere: a modern building—modern in the sense of owing allegiance to no other age but ours—which is also monumental’ (Architectural Review, June 1951). In 1953 Martin succeeded Matthew as architect to the council. It was during this period that the LCC architect’s department, involved in a huge programme of housing, schools, service buildings, and special projects, produced some of its finest work.


Three years later Martin was appointed as the first professor of architecture in the University of Cambridge and head of the department of architecture. He also became a fellow of Jesus College (1957–73). Over the course of the next sixteen years Martin transformed what had been a small architecture school of little significance (without even the power to exempt its students from the RIBA final examination) into one of international standing. It became the very embodiment of the outcome of the 1958 Oxford conference which placed architectural education, supported by research, firmly in the university sector. Martin had played a major role in formulating the proposals before the conference and was responsible for drafting its final report and recommendations.

In 1967 Martin established the department’s Centre for Land Use and Built Form Studies (renamed the Martin Centre in 1973) and initiated a programme of research on fundamental architectural issues. Most notably, in his work with Lionel March, he developed a strong theoretical basis for urban design—applying geometrical principles to the issue of ground coverage and building form. Martin and March summarized this work in their comparison between the pavilion form and its anti-form, the court, and demonstrated how it was possible to achieve high housing densities while at the same time providing useful space at ground level and avoiding the use of high buildings. This work flew in the face of conventional wisdom at a time when the Ministry of Housing was, through its tall building subsidy, positively encouraging the construction of local authority housing towers.

Later work

In 1957, shortly after moving to Cambridge, Martin established his studio at Great Shelford, in the lower part of the King’s Mill, which he and his wife converted as their family home. Here, collaborating with his associates (whom he always acknowledged), he began a series of projects, mainly in the higher-education sector, that was to last until he closed the studio in 1986. Martin regarded this work as a series of investigations into generic form and it is in this way, thematically rather than chronologically, and as a body of thought rather than a catalogue of individual buildings, that he presents it in the summary of his work, Buildings and Ideas, 1933–83: from the Studio of Leslie Martin and his Associates (1983).

The best-known of the Martin studio’s buildings is perhaps Harvey Court, a residential court composed with stepped terraces for Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, designed with Patrick Hodgkinson and Colin St John Wilson and completed in 1962. Other distinguished buildings include the Manor Road Library group for the University of Oxford, with Hodgkinson, Wilson, and Douglas Lanham (1964), the Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge, with David Owers (1970), the auditorium of the University Music School in Cambridge, with Colen Lumley (1974), and the Gallery of Modern Art for the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, with Ivor Richards (1984). In addition, the studio completed other development plans and buildings in the universities of Cambridge, Hull, Leicester, and London; the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow; the government centre in Ta‘if, Saudi Arabia, and, in 1965, a major and highly controversial development plan for Whitehall.

In addition to teaching and practising, Martin also played an important role as a competition assessor. Most notably, he was one of the team of three (with Eero Saarinen and John Ashworth) which selected Jørn Utzon’s design as the winning entry in the Sydney Opera House competition. In the period of rapid university expansion in the 1960s his advice was sought by many vice-chancellors and he was instrumental in the appointment of James Stirling and James Gowan at Leicester; Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon at Leeds; and Denys Lasdun at East Anglia. He recommended Alison and Peter Smithson for the Economist tower commission. He was also adviser to Kuwait on the development of that city and responsible for the appointment there of Utzon, Arne Jacobsen, and Reima Pietila. He played a part in the award of the royal gold medal to Alvar Aalto in 1957, and tried—and failed—to secure a commission for him in Britain.

Martin was knighted in 1957, and held several visting professorships and honorary degrees. He was awarded the royal gold medal for architecture in 1973 and, in 1992, for the Gallery of Modern Art in Lisbon, the RIBA trustees’ medal. He was a fellow of the RIBA, a member of its council (1952–8) and vice-president (1955–7), a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1958–72), and consultant to the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon (1959–69): he was appointed to the Portuguese order of Santiago de Espada. He died in Great Shelford on 28 July 2000, and was buried on 4 August at Gunton, Norfolk.

Critical assessment

Martin’s was a remarkable career. He began teaching in 1930 and completed his last building in 1990—an interval of sixty years. Having witnessed, through his architect father, the last stages of the arts and crafts movement in practice, he was thereafter always in the forefront of architectural activity. He was highly active in the emerging modern movement in the 1930s; he worked on war damage and reconstruction in the 1940s; he led the world’s largest architectural office in the formative period of the welfare state, in the early 1950s; and thereafter he greatly influenced not only architecture, architectural education, and research but also the physical form of many universities in the period of expansion in the 1960s. Martin had a remarkable ability to inspire and lead.

As an architect he will be best remembered for the brilliant conception and execution of the Festival Hall (which later became the first post-war building to achieve a Grade 1 listing), for the way in which he drew on precedent and tradition in developing the court form as at Harvey Court, and for the quality and clarity of works such as the Oxford library group (a compositional tour de force). The use of a powerful organizational principle or idea allied to a very highly developed aesthetic sense underpinned this work, but so too did a concern for materials: the 1960s and 1970s brick buildings of the ‘Cambridge school’ that he inspired have a modest and workmanlike quality that has worn well. However, his work was occasionally controversial. In Oxford some criticized his buildings for being ‘unforgiving, bland and unsympathetic to older architecture’ (Daily Telegraph, 1 Aug 2000). His Whitehall study provoked fierce opposition. Martin’s commission for this had been a measure of the respect in which he was held for his planning and political skills. However, the sheer scale of the challenge (accommodating both a vast increase of civil servants in Whitehall and the implications of Colin Buchanan’s traffic proposals for the area) together with some ill-judged publicity and the failure to convey the exploratory nature of the study (described by Martin in Buildings and Ideas) inevitably led to its being remembered in an ill light.

As an educator, Martin influenced the shape of architectural education in Britain for nearly half a century and showed how the discipline could take its place in the university sector. He profoundly influenced his Cambridge students and it became a source of great pride to him that nearly thirty of these held university chairs. He made a significant contribution to architectural research, although this work has been criticized for its diagrammatic nature and for its ‘failure’ to recognize the true nature of cities. His powerful reflective capacity was allied to a concern for ideas, for a unifying environment and a broader culture. Above all he had a passion for quality and clarity and for principles and theory. As one of his most distinguished students, Richard MacCormac, wrote after Martin’s death: ‘No architect of his generation sustained a more consistent intention to relate theory to the procedure and outcome of design’ (Architectural Research Quarterly, 4/4, 2000, 300). Martin himself summed up his position when, at the end of his introduction to Buildings and Ideas, he wrote (quoting from Hamlet) ‘There is indeed a “glass of fashion”. But there is also, to be discovered, a “mould of form” and it is that which has seemed to me to be the deeper and more lasting’

Peter Carolin

© Oxford University Press 2004–14


J. L. Martin, Buildings and ideas, 1933–83 (1983)

P. Carolin and T. Dannatt, eds., Architecture, education and research: the work of Leslie Martin: papers and selected articles (1996)

arq (Architectural Research Quarterly), 4/4 (2000), 295–308

arq (Architectural Research Quarterly), 5/1 (2001), 11–12

Dictionary of contemporary architects (1994)

The Times (1 Aug 2000)

Daily Telegraph (1 Aug 2000)

The Independent (2 Aug 2000)

The Guardian (2 Aug 2000)


RIBA, drawings collection

Tate collection, transcript of interview for TV South West