As an educator, researcher and architect, Royal Gold Medallist Sir Leslie Martin left an indelible mark on Britain’s architectural history and culture
Sir Leslie Martin, who died last Friday evening aged 92, will be remembered for three remarkable achievements. He was the principal architect for the most successful public building of the century in Britain, changed the entire pattern of architectural education for two generations and developed the most distinctive and coherent combination of architecture, research and education for the past fifty years. He was the Royal Gold Medallist in 1973.
At the age of 26, Martin was appointed head of the Hull School of Architecture. Besides teaching, he completed a number of small buildings, several of which are now listed; edited, with Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, Circle; and welcomed visitors as diverse as Bronowsky and Moholy Nagy.During the war, at the LMS railway, he worked on bomb damage repair, the development of a prefabricated station system and an integrated design policy inspired by Frank Pick’s work for London Transport.
In 1948, Martin was appointed deputy architect to the London County Council (LCC) with special responsibility for the Royal Festival Hall.This complex project was undertaken to a very tight programme in an era of post-war shortages. Responsible for the overall ‘egg-in-a-box’ conception, he involved himself in detail as closely as his other commitments allowed. Despite its controversial acoustics, the Festival Hall is today much loved and heavily used by the public. It is the building he was most proud of: he had hoped to be present for its 50th birthday in 2001.
In 1953, Martin became chief architect of what was by then the largest architectural office in the world, at the LCC. There was a huge housing and school building programme.He worked incredible hours, ensuring an astonishingly high standard of work ranging from the in-house Alton West (Roehampton) housing to the many schools undertaken by Powell and Moya, Architects’ Co-Partnership, Peter Moro and others.
Three years later, Martin was elected first Professor of Architecture at the University of Cambridge. He took over a small school with no Part 2 recognition. During the next decade he changed all that and promoted research in the institution of the Centre for Land Use and Built Form Studies (now the Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies). The school became the embodiment of the outcome of the 1958 Oxford Conference on architectural education.
In his quiet way, Martin dominated the Oxford Conference and transformed architecture into a university subject supported by research. He had an all-embracing vision and knowledge of the possibilities. But the system he proposed and implemented at Cambridge was not replicable in many other institutions and, in the years since, weight of numbers, reductions in funding, the bureaucracy of research and gradual separation of practice from teaching have seriously weakened architectural education.
The linking of practice, education and research was a central tenet of Martin’s belief.At a time when Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was making a significant impact, Martin sought to show how the quality of the urban environment could be enhanced by an understanding ofsimple geometrical propositions, land use and built form.His greatest piece of writing, The Grid as Generator (1972), showed how, for example, London’s Foundling Estate might be dramatically improved. This work and other ‘speculations’ – many developed with Lionel March – were to profoundly influence Cambridge graduates such as Richard MacCormac and David Lea. And, in the Brunswick Centre development, Patrick Hodgkinson realised a fragment of the Foundling study.
The fact that Martin never saw a building as an answer to a particular problem, but always as a kind of prototypical solution to a generic building type, could be both a strength and, as in some of his larger projects, a weakness. Among the buildings (each undertaken with a principal collaborator) for which he will be best remembered are Harvey Court and the William Stone Building in Cambridge, the Manor Road Library Group in Oxford and the two domestic conversions undertaken with his wife, Sadie, at Shelford. The best of the larger schemes (of which the Festival Hall is good example) are characterised by a remarkable rigour and clarity. Most of this work is illustrated in his carefully compiled oeuvre complete, Buildings and Ideas 1933-83: from the studio of Leslie Martin and his Associates, which also includes some of his essays.
In the late ’50s and ’60s Martin influenced the selection of architects such as Stirling and Gowan and (unsuccessfully) promoted the untried Richard Rogers for the massive Fitzroy/Burleigh Street scheme in Cambridge. He picked a scheme by an unknown AA student (Eldred Evans) as winner of the Lincoln Civic Centre competition and was co-assessor for the Sydney Opera House. Among his friendships were those with Ben Nicholson, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto (whom he sponsored for the Royal Gold Medal in 1957 and whom he failed to persuade to do a building in England).
His very beautiful personal collection included work given by the two architects as well as many Nicholsons.
The affection and respect in which Martin was held by his former students has often been remarked upon. The affection owed much to his wife Sadie, a talented designer who died in 1992 and whose warmth perfectly balanced her husband’s gravity. The respect reflected his achievements as an educator, researcher and architect. There are plenty of examples of those who have managed to work at a very high level in one or two of those fields but Leslie Martin’s achievement in all three and, above all, his ability to inter-relate them was unique.
3 August, 2000 | By Peter Carolin