Obituary: A. Stuart Gray

By Hughes, Jonathan | The Independent (London, England), March 4, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: A. Stuart Gray


Hughes, Jonathan, The Independent (London, England)


A. STUART GRAY was one of the most prominent architects for Britain's National Health Service. Yet Watkins Gray, the practice he captained during the "heroic" period of NHS hospital building in the 1960s, was very different to the one which in 1939 had won the competition for the new St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner in London. It is testimony to Gray's managerial skill and commercial acumen that Watkins Gray continued to flourish within the climate of architectural modernism in post-war Britain, a period far removed from the Edwardian traditionalism of the 1930s.

Gray's ascent of the architectural profession had been rapid. Born in 1905, he studied at both the Central School of Arts & Crafts (from 1920) and the Royal Academy Schools (1928-34). It was at these two institutions that his personal architectural repertoire developed, evincing both the Arts & Crafts influences of William Lethaby's Central School and the classical splendour of Sir Edwin Lutyens's architecture at the RA. His talent was acknowledged by numerous medals and prizes won at the RA. Tellingly, his successes were achieved in competitions set by the pompier Edwardian architects - William Curtis Green, Sir John Burnet, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Edwin Lutyens - and were rewarded with travelling studentships to Italy, to examine at first hand the architecture of the classical and Renaissance world.

However the inter-war years also witnessed a period of intense architectural change, and Gray found himself confronting the problems of designing for modern building types and the emerging debate around modern architectural design. He worked on the new cinemas which his subsequent business partner, William H. Watkins (1878-1964), was prodigiously building across the West Country, and also, briefly, on department store design in Burnet & Tait's office at Selfridge's in London. A period with the major inter-war practice of Adams Holden & Pearson brought Gray into contact with modern hospital design, working with Lionel Pearson on London's new Westminster Hospital (completed 1938). Recognising Gray's skill, Watkins poached him back to open a London office. The practice's efforts turned to competitions, and in 1939 Gray won first prize for his proposals for the new St George's Hospital. The design portrayed a grand, dignified building, in command of its prominent site and steeped in a calm, stripped- down classicism, topped with pavilions suggestive of Gray's lasting admiration for Lutyens. The design was criticised by the architectural modernists who proposed sleek, unadorned, glazed slab- blocks for the site.

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