John Partridge obituary

Architect combining flair with social purpose and sound building technique

Whether the job at hand was the rehousing of Londoners or the dining arrangements of Oxford fellows, the architect John Partridge, who has died aged 91, was a natural problem solver. To housing, colleges, courthouses and theatres alike he brought a combination of creative flair, social purpose and sound building technique – qualities rarely seen together in contemporary architecture.

Among his most celebrated projects was the creation, with his colleagues, Bill Howell, John Killick and Stan Amis, of 2,000 homes for the London county council at Roehampton. In Oxford, the Hilda Besse building for St Antony’s College, probably his finest built work, is an essay in how each part comes together to make an intricate yet ordered whole, while in his halls of residence for St Anne’s College, strongly modelled facades refract the daylight entering the interiors and frame views out. He was always creative and conscientious.

Born in Crouch End, north London, John was the youngest child of George Partridge, an accounts clerk, and his wife, Gladys (nee Rolt). He attended Highbury county school and Shooters Hill grammar school. When his father became ill, he left school to support his family by taking a job as a clerk in London county council’s public health department.

Partridge discovered his vocation after signing up to an LCC training scheme, enrolling in part-time classes and later an evening school at the Regent Street Polytechnic school of architecture. The course had a pragmatic bent but it was the architectural historian John Summerson’s lectures on Renaissance, baroque and Georgian architecture that inspired him. Partridge seized upon the analogies, perspectives and solutions suggested by architectural history. These, he believed, would lead to a richer architecture.

John Partridge was always creative and conscientious.
John Partridge was always creative and conscientious. Photograph: James O Davies/The Historic England Archive

When, in 1950, the LCC chief architect, Robert Matthew, regained responsibility for housing, Partridge was among the first entrants to the new division. There he encountered an influx of talented graduates from the architectural schools, including Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson, Alan Colquhoun, Peter Carter and his future partners, Howell, Killick and Amis. It was a formative period, with long hours of debate and discovery. If his educational background differed from theirs, it mattered little, such was the sense of striving towards a common goal.

Of the LCC’s newly acquired sites, the largest and finest was at Roehampton, comprising the grounds of four large houses on the fringe of Richmond Park. Partridge joined Howell, Killick and Amis to complete a team preparing a scheme of 2,000 dwellings at the Roehampton Lane site (now known as Alton West). Devotees of Le Corbusier, then entering his raw concrete béton brut phase, they visited his Unité d’habitation in Marseille before its scaffolding was struck.

Partridge grasped that Roehampton’s most memorable characteristic was its landscape setting. Clusters of 12-storey towers were planted among the trees, while Howell’s mini-Unités emerged from the rolling grass carpet of Downshire Field. The hill was in fact remodelled by Partridge, who for several days directed a bulldozer from the sixth floor of one of the unfinished blocks, like an orchestral conductor. At Roehampton, as Nikolaus Pevsner observed, Corbusian urbanism was reconciled with the English picturesque.

In summer 1959, Howell and Killick persuaded Partridge to join them on their competition entry for Churchill College, Cambridge. Leaving secure employment for private practice was a leap of faith – by then he had a wife, Doris (nee Foreman), two young children and a mortgage. The design was a sculptural reimagining of Cambridge academe, complete with open courts, a great hall and an island tomb for Sir Winston (in the event buried at Bladon in Oxfordshire). The scheme was placed second but it was the critics’ favourite and the partnership’s first commissions followed. It was the beginning of Howell Killick & Partridge; Amis completed the quartet in 1961.

The partners leased a Fitzroy Square office from the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, who, on discovering that the architects had sublet rooms to a company he had taken over, roared: “Partridge! You and I are going to fall out!” Howell Killick Partridge & Amis was a disciplined but good-humoured practice with its daily rituals and personalities. The partners remained firmly in control of design, yet Partridge had a knack for recognising and nurturing talent.

In John Partridge’s Roehampton development, Nikolaus Pevsner observed, Corbusian urbanism was reconciled with the English picturesque.
In John Partridge’s Roehampton development, Nikolaus Pevsner observed, Corbusian urbanism was reconciled with the English picturesque. Photograph: James O Davies/The Historic England Archive

Although weaned on housing , HKPA made its name in the 1960s higher education boom. Its Cambridge commissions were handled by Howell while Partridge took on the Oxford jobs. Whereas Howell evolved a sequence of “vertebrate buildings” whose expressed structure defined the interiors, Partridge was interested in skin as well as bones. He studied how concrete weathered, detailing the chocolate bar facades of his Oxford designs to shed water cleanly. This approach, which he dubbed “elevational plumbing”, illustrates his blend of creativity and pragmatism.

The interior of the dining hall at St Antony’s College, Oxford, designed by John Partridge.
The interior of the dining hall at St Antony’s College, Oxford, designed by John Partridge. Photograph: James O Davies/The Historic England Archive

After Howell’s death in 1974, Partridge increasingly became the public face of HKPA. By then the go-ahead optimism of the postwar years was sapping and concrete was no longer a material to show off. In his later work, bricks, pine trusses and chunky pantiles were detailed with the same rigour. Partridge spoke with particular pride of the Hall of Justice in Trinidad, a master class in courthouse planning; the Albany Theatre in Deptford, south-east London; and Chaucer College, Canterbury, a Japanese university college that afforded the opportunity to indulge a longstanding passion for oriental building traditions.

Partridge was of slight build and dressed smartly, with a neatly trimmed moustache. Behind a stoic formality lay reserves of kindness and a ready wit.

He married Doris in 1953 and the couple raised their family at Petts Wood, near Orpington. Partridge restored a Regency house at nearby Cudham, and retired there after winding up the practice in 1995. His service to architecture was recognised when he was elected a Royal Academician in 1988. He was appointed CBE in 1981.

Doris died in 2000. He is survived by his children, Richard and Jane, and by two grandchildren, Orlando and Leo.

• John Albert Partridge, architect, born 26 August 1924; died 20 July 2016

• This article was amended on 19 August 2016. The original mentioned Le Corbusier entering his smoothed concrete béton brut phase; it should have been his raw concrete béton brut phase; and the 10-storey towers mentioned were 12-storey towers.

Geraint Franklin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sir Richard MacCormac obituary
Modernist architect who pleased his many establishment clients – the BBC excepted

Oliver Wainwright

29, Jul, 2014 @5:56 PM

Article image
Letter: Dame Zaha Hadid obituary
Bruce Ross-Smith writes: Deyan Sudjic mentioned that Zaha Hadid “built a library” at St Antony’s College, Oxford

Bruce Ross-Smith

01, May, 2016 @3:24 PM

Article image
David Marks obituary
Architect who both designed and made a reality of the London Eye and the British Airways i360 tower on Brighton seafront

Steve Rose

09, Oct, 2017 @4:40 PM

Article image
Bryan Avery obituary
Architect who designed the London Imax and developed a vision of sustainability

Richard Weston

06, Jul, 2017 @10:58 AM

Article image
John Morton obituary
Architect and designer who in the 1960s created flat-pack furniture before setting the standard for shared office spaces

Alan Powers

10, May, 2017 @11:56 AM

Article image
John Hopkins obituary

Landscape architect responsible for London's Olympic Park and campaigner for sustainability

Oliver Wainwright

28, Jan, 2013 @5:16 PM

Article image
John Bancroft obituary

Architect of the brutalist landmark Pimlico school in central London

Andrew Saint

20, Sep, 2011 @8:33 PM

Article image
Irvine Sellar obituary
Property developer behind the Shard, western Europe’s tallest building

Martin Adeney

07, Mar, 2017 @12:26 PM

Article image
Walter Hain obituary
Architect and political activist who fought against apartheid in South Africa

Stephen Moss

02, Nov, 2016 @4:43 PM

Article image
John Burrow obituary
Other lives: Influential scholar of medieval English literature

Thorlac Turville-Petre

29, Oct, 2017 @3:50 PM