Obituary Guardian Newspaper 2 August 2000

The architect Sir Leslie Martin, who has died aged 91, was formed by the arts and crafts tradition, and his buildings bear the stamp of meticulous detailing and beautiful finish. Yet he believed that new products and materials demanded new forms and new methods of building. “Architects,” he wrote, “must respond to the old forms and materials and perceive their true intent in their own age, and then, remembering everything, start again. This is the essential intention of tradition.”

He is best known for his work on the Royal Festival Hall in London, completed on time for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and for several large projects in Oxford and Cambridge.

Martin grew up in Manchester, where he trained at the university school of architecture. He won commissions for private houses, mainly through contacts he had made while editing a Faber publication, Circle, which brought together views of the avant-garde in art, literature and the sciences.

In 1934, he became head of the new architecture school at Hull University, and married Sadie Speight, also an architect. Together, they designed Northwich Kindergarten, and, in 1938, wrote The Flat Book, a reference work on contemporary furniture, fabrics and household products.

Towards the end of the war, Martin became chief assistant architect to the LMS Railway, a creative centre of the hitherto unsung modern movement, whose rational, systematic and enlightened atmosphere must have been most congenial to him. From there, it was a natural progression to the London County Council, a centre of excellence at that time.

As deputy to the chief architect, Robert Matthew, Martin was immediately involved in plans for the Festival of Britain, and its one permanent building, the Royal Festival Hall. No challenge could have been more tempting – the hall would be the first public building in Britain of the emerging 20th century architecture. So, in 1948, Matthew and Martin embarked on a fast-track building programme that would have stretched the skill of high-tech practitioners even today.

Martin was not an able talent spotter, but he knew how to nurture it, and always gave credit where it was due. His collaborators were always named, and many launched upon successful careers. In 1953, he succeeded Matthew as chief architect to the LCC, and three years later was appointed to the chair of architecture at Cambridge Univer- sity. He was a brilliant teacher, and believed that the purpose of education is to develop talents and stretch the mind.

Architecture, he thought, was best approached by learning to recognise problems, analysing their various parts, and then bringing everything together. “In architecture,” he said, “there are no separate subjects. Architecture need not be an arid cacophony; it should be a conversation.”

Martin was aware of spatial relationships on every scale; that buildings are not only the sum of the rooms within, but that they are also the bricks of which a town is built. His contribution to planning wisdom was that relationships in time must also be considered. Since land is becoming scarce, for example, we must take likely future needs into account.

He believed that we had lost the power to guide and shape the forms of our environment, and needed to regain this power. He also believed that a building design could not be fully tested until it was built. The existence of the building research station made this easier, but experience strengthened Martin’s interest in encouraging research as a career for architects, and in the development of building types.

The success of College Hall, Leicester, confirmed this method and, as Martin’s practice took root in Cambridge, Harvey Court, a residential building for Gonville and Caius College, provided a telling example of modern thinking on the hallowed quadrangle form. The same rational procedures produced the group of faculty libraries at Manor Road, Oxford, designed by Martin in collaboration with Colin St John Wilson.

On their arrival in Cambridge, Martin and his wife converted the King’s Mill, Shelford, to provide their practice with an office and their family with a house above. The detailing and surprising spaces of this building – and of the art gallery at Kettle’s Yard – showed the formidable theorist and shy, and therefore often intimidating, professor in a new light.

Meanwhile, Martin had also been consultant to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation almost from the time it acquired the old palace park in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. In Calouste, he found a client whose perceptions of the relation between buildings and their environment matched his own.

His appointment, in 1978, as architect for the detailed design of the next building to be added to the complex in the park, the Centre for Modern Art, offered an opportunity, surely unique, to design a great complex of buildings for which he could rely upon perfect craftsmanship and, even more unusual, ample funding.

The results lived up to everyone’s expectations. Today, the gallery rises from a moat, and overlooks a large amphitheatre. Children have a pavilion, where they can pursue their own art. The stepped section gives the even distribution and generous level of light that had become the practice’s signature. That these are joyful buildings is no surprise.

One can study Martin’s writings and buildings in detail, but you have to stand back to grasp his achievement. This erudite professor acted out, over six decades, the naive intention of his generation – to put the findings of science and reason to the service of society, and of architecture. By promoting teamwork and research into building types, then by building these types and testing their practicality, he and his students, and like-minded architects, created the means to confront the awful scale of modern buildings.

Martin was knighted in 1957. His wife died in 1992, and he is survived by their son and daughter.

Diana Rowntree
John Leslie Martin, architect, born August 17 1908; died July 28 2000