Obituary: Ivor Cunningham

Award-winning architect whose work took in landscapes as well as buildings

The architect Ivor Cunningham, a designer of both landscapes and buildings, has died at the age of 78. With his practice partner Eric Lyons, he reunited the postwar estate dwelling with its picturesque English outdoors setting. Their sustained body of work for Span Developments alone - 73 built projects and more than 2,000 dwellings largely in London and the south-east during three busy decades from the mid-1950s - established an almost 18th-century sense of place for a distinctly contemporary north European form of habitation.

Cunningham joined the practice in 1955, and from 1962 it became the Eric Lyons Cunningham Partnership. Landscape became thematically and literally the central hallmark and commercial selling point for sympathetic property developers such as Geoffrey Townsend of Span, guided by Lyons, a progressive and fiercely intellectual architect. At a time when the neighbourhood ideals of the garden city movement were being conveniently overlooked by housebuilders, the intellectual case for a revival became highly attractive to a certain class of purchaser tolerant of higher-density living.

Cunningham was born in Orpington, Kent, spending his infant years in Green Street Green until the family moved to Downe upon the early death of his father. He gained a scholarship to Dartford grammar school and studied architecture at Medway School of Art. Following national service in the Royal Corps of Signals, he recommenced studies at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square, central London, becoming an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1951.

A growing interest in buildings and their surroundings took him to King's College, University of Durham, to study landscape architecture. Drawn to a practice that synthesised the built and natural environments, he worked at the offices of landscape architects Brenda Colvin and Sylvia Crowe, who were at that time campaigning strongly against what they held to be the mistaken suburbia of the postwar new towns.

A period with Eric Anjou in Stockholm was cut short by Cunningham's successful application to join the Lyons practice at Mill House, East Molesey, Surrey.

With Span's Parkleys estate at Ham, Surrey, almost complete, the first fruits of the Lyons-Cunningham collaboration were more fully realised in developments at Blackheath, south-east London, where Span took options on land owned by the Cator Estate.

The 1960s saw the partnership win its largest public commission, the World's End development in Chelsea, in alliance with architects John Metcalfe and Jim Cadbury-Brown. Though finally a landmark success, construction foundered amid union unrest, where, for example, men were made to lay no more than 12 bricks an hour. The result was the withdrawal of the contractor Cubitts and the architects' closing of the site until the works could be rescued by Bovis on more favourable terms.

Bovis rescued Span again when it stumbled at New Ash Green, Kent. The economic difficulties of the 1970s caused the profession to reflect on its appetite for modernism. For Cunningham and Lyons, a fresh interest in vernacular architecture gave rise to their largest foreign commission, Vilamoura on the Algarve in Portugal, and the award-winning Mallard Place in Twickenham - an opportunity for Cunningham to plant a rich and enveloping, almost Rococo landscape.

Lyons' tenure as Riba president made it necessary for Cunningham to assume greater responsibility for the practice. This proved a vital factor in its continuation following Lyons' death in 1980. The last of the Blackheath projects, carried out entirely under Cunningham's hand, was followed by ICI's Warren House training facility at Kingston Hill, Kingston upon Thames, the Vera Fletcher Hall at Thames Ditton and numerous social housing projects, from 1982 to 1994.

A lifelong Liberal, brought into the party by admiration for Jo Grimond, its leader from 1956 to 1967, he was prominent in the party in East Molesey - though to the disappointment of many (his thespian personal style and Peter O'Toole good looks would have made him an ideal town councillor) he stood on just one occasion.

Following marriage to Annabel Willson in 1959, a bachelor passion for rugby was willingly exchanged for evenings of Scottish dancing held regularly for many years in the sitting room of Kate and Eric Lyons.

At once gruff and then painstaking with juniors, Cunningham would emerge from his studio at tea-time to recount an anecdote invariably concerning Lyons, whom he clearly revered, or maybe a memory of a Kentish bicycle ride, concluding always with a throwaway line from Ben Jonson, John Donne or AE Housman before disappearing back inside to draw.

Annabel survives him, along with their daughters Amanda and Jenny and sons Angus and Daniel.

· Ivor Richard Cunningham, architect, born May 15 1928; died March 15 2007

Paul Cook

The GuardianTramp

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