Sir Leslie Martin
Architect who cut his teeth on the Royal Festival Hall and left a Modernist mark on Oxford and Cambridge
SIR LESLIE MARTIN, who has died aged 91, was a leading light in the Modern Movement in British architecture, making his mark with work on the Festival Hall and with several large projects in Oxford and Cambridge.
Martin showed a rare consistency in the face of the many swings of fashion during his long career. Having made his name with the team that built the Royal Festival Hall, Martin left his unmistakably Modernist stamp on Oxford with vast blocks wholly out of sympathy with the ancient buildings of the University.
From 1948, as Deputy Architect at the LCC, he led the design team, which included Edwin Williams and Peter Moro, for the Royal Festival Hall. Such was the rush to have it completed in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951 that construction began before the design, inspired by Berthold Lubetkin, was finished. For Martin and the others in the team, the sound of pile-driving was a constant reminder of the passing time.
Martin found that the only possible location available on the site for a foyer to hold more than 3,000 people was underneath the auditorium itself. Thus the auditorium was designed as a floating mass over the foyer. This had the added advantage of providing extra sound protection from Hungerford railway bridge nearby . Materials were in short supply, and it was only after the intervention of the Cabinet minister Herbert Morrison that they obtained the stone cladding and wood they needed.
Visitors during the final stages of building included Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, who said after seeing the auditorium: “These boxes are a joke of course – but a good joke.” The building, with its gently curving glass face looking over a prominent site on the Thames, was immediately popular. Unlike some other buildings by Martin, the Festival Hall survived the Eighties backlash against Modernism.
Martin saw architecture as “the attempt to create some sense of coherence and form, seeing through chaos towards some perception of possible unity”. But some of his buildings, particularly the English and Law faculties building in Oxford, were heartily disliked by many who had loved their surroundings before Martin added to them. One project that would have caused outrage had it been built was a scheme that Martin came up with in 1964 for Civil Service offices in Whitehall. It would have involved the demolition of several buildings in the area, including the Foreign Office.
John Leslie Martin, the son of an architect, was born in Manchester on August 7 1908. He studied at the Manchester University School of Architecture, where he was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Silver Medal in 1929. After graduating he remained there as an assistant lecturer; in 1934 he completed his doctorate.
Aged 26, Martin was made Head of the School of Architecture at Hull. At first he had only four full-time students. But Martin was deeply involved in the latest architectural ideas in Britain. He joined the Modernist MARS group and persuaded such luminaries as Serge Chermayeff and Marcel Breuer to lecture to his students. Martin also edited – with Naum Gabo and his close friend Ben Nicholson – the magazine Circle. Contributors included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Berthold Lubetkin.
Martin and his wife Sadie were in touch with the wider art world, and their home contained not only furniture by Breuer, Chermayeff and Alvar Aalto, with lights by Jørn Utzon, but also a fine collection of paintings, including works by Nicholson, Henry Moore and Piet Mondrian. Such was Martin’s enthusiasm for Mondrian’s primary colours that he once went to enormous lengths to find a baby’s rattle in red or yellow rather than pink.
During that period, Martin ran a small practice, designing small houses in Yorkshire and Cumbria and some furniture. He wrote, with his wife, The Flat Book (1938), a reference book on contemporary furniture, fabrics and household products. “This early work,” he later confessed, “can certainly be regarded as trivial.”
As Principal Assistant Architect of the LMS Railway (1939-48), Martin was involved in designing emergency wartime buildings. Between 1948 and 1956 projects at the LCC included a project, never built, for a permanent exhibition at Crystal Palace. In 1956 Martin set up a practice in Cambridge. After building his own house and studios in a converted mill in Great Shelford, he worked on projects for the universities of Leicester, Hull, London and Cambridge, collaborating at different times with Colin St John Wilson, Trevor Dannatt and Patrick Hodgkinson.
In all the buildings of this period, Martin combined careful attention to details with a feeling for his materials – mainly brickwork, timber and concrete – and for the wholeness of the design. His residential blocks for Harvey Court at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, are classical in conception, based on the idea of the court with traditional staircases. But the court is raised to first-floor level so that the entire ground floor forms a plinth containing the communal rooms and space for storage and servicing.
Martin’s libraries at Oxford, for the faculties of Law and English (1959-64), interlock to form one composition. For all the criticism they attracted, they do display a lucid handling of internal space and light. There followed a residential building at Peterhouse, Cambridge (1960-64), an arts buildings for the University of Hull and a graduate building for Balliol College, Oxford (1964-67).
The Zoology and Experimental Psychology Building for Oxford University displayed a characteristic elegance of sectional planning, but many found the external appearance of the building bland and unforgiving. In 1962, Martin received the commission with Colin St John Wilson for the British Library. They proposed a new public square in front of the British Museum, involving the demolition of several streets of Bloomsbury. After fierce opposition, Harold Wilson’s administration rejected the plan. Martin dropped out and left Colin St John Wilson to complete the project at St Pancras.
In his extension of Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge (1968-70), Martin trebled the volume of the original house and used carefully directed natural lighting to achieve a sense of calm. In 1956 Martin had been appointed the first Professor of Architecture at Cambridge University. There he founded the Centre for Land Use and Built Form, since renamed the Martin Centre.
He showed great kindness towards his students, often helping them get their first commissions. He felt, however, that it was not for one generation to tell another what to do. Martin’s research during his time at Cambridge demonstrated that tall buildings do not make the most effective use of land and that the same floor space can be built on the same land area with buildings of only one-third of the height.
In the 1970s he built with Colen Lumley Pembroke College Library and St Ebbe’s Building in Oxford, and the new Music School for Cambridge. His Centre for Modern Art at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon was the culmination of 30 years of involvement with the foundation. Its ribbed structure and sensitivity to the surrounding landscape make it one of Martin’s most elegant works, reminiscent of a Moore sculpture. The stepped structure is resistant to earthquakes, to which Lisbon has in the past been disastrously susceptible.
His Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow (1983-90) is set back from the street to form a public forecourt in keeping with a Glaswegian convention.
Martin was knighted in 1957. His many awards included the Royal Gold Medal, 1973, the Trustees Medal from the RIBA, 1991, and the Concrete Society Award, 1972. Martin was an enthusiastic cultivator of endangered types of apple.
He married, in 1934, Sadie Speight, an architect; she died in 1992. They had a son and a daughter.