Published  02/08/2004

Obituary: Lionel Brett (4th Viscount Esher)

Obituary: Lionel Brett (4th Viscount Esher)

Lionel Gordon Baliol Brett, who died on 9 July 2004, aged 90, was an influential architect and town planner in the transitional years following the Second World War, and again in the 1970s. His career took many unexpected turns, but ultimately one could look back with some conviction that his outstanding talents had in later years been readily fulfilled. His development seemed always plagued by unwelcome setbacks. And yet, his early promise intellectually - even precociousness, if it were not for unremitting shyness - when he was top of his school (Eton) and then obtained a dramatic first class degree at New College, Oxford was amply fulfilled. Brett came from a century-long line of committed and distinguished public servants in the law or Royal duties, and was instilled with that concept of service to society and the community which today has only a relevance for the individual and is now no matter of inherited privilege. Accordingly, Brett seemed to be assured a privileged legal or diplomatic career. But this was not to be; instead, after Oxford, he trained as an architect. He won the RIBA’s Ashpitel Prize before war broke out, awarded to the best external student. In fact, dire frustration with the poor intellectual calibre of his colleagues at the Architectural Association, where he started off led him to his first unpredictable and radical move. He was articled to ASG Butler.

Following the war years, when he served in the Royal Artillery with distinction, he quickly set up in practice. By 1949, he had been appointed Architect-Planner of Hatfield, and this decade also saw him engaged by Stevenage, Basildon, and Southampton. He combined a ready skill in domestic housing with an ability to see the larger issues, and the abilities of a natural administrator. Throughout this period he made a name as an inspiring lecturer and talented and scholarly author of eight books that invariably combined practice-based research and 'hands-on' experience. He also pioneered the expansion of architectural thinking to encompass the broader environmental spectrum. Landscape in Distress was a typical, powerful polemic based upon the threat to his own Oxfordshire of unrestricted development. His arguments struck home. A much-repeated (by his mentor Geoffrey Jellicoe) Lionel Brett pronouncement was 'In the English landscape, the architectural elements are trees rather than buildings'.

Brett was inherently, by upbringing and inclination, a countryman, however urbane his presence might seem. In this life, his perfect companion was his wife Christian Brett, the painter. They had married when he came down from Oxford - a union of 69 years which survived many career vicissitudes. Brett’s career was somehow characterised by unexpected turns of events. His reserved demeanour (covering a personal withdrawal from any reliance on privilege) was mistaken sometimes for lassitude; his querulousness for lack of intellectual conviction - of which there was no lack whatever. Following the period from 1965-67 as President of RIBA (when he was a pioneer environmentalist) for which he was made CBE, he was fortunate in being invited to follow Sir Robin Darwin as Rector of the Royal College of Art. The post seemed to suit him admirably in 1971. However, he had been drawn into a maelstrom of student revolt, appropriate to the period. It was by astute diplomacy and intellectual insight (which commanded the respect of both students and staff) that was combined with proven administrative skill, that he was said, in retrospect, to have saved the Royal College from closure.

In addition, Brett had a plethora of key appointments: The Royal Fine Arts Commission (1951-69) the Victoria and Albert Museum Advisory Council (1967-72): The National Trust’s key Thames and Chilterns Regional Chairmanship (1979-83); Sir John Soane’s Museum (1976-94) as well as the environment panel of British Rail.

Brett established an international reputation as an Architect-Planner, with commissions as a Consultant for Caracas, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and Lagos (the latter High Commission Residence being only partially fulfilled owing to an unfortunate disagreement with the High Commissioner’s wife). Once again, he stood his ground, to the detriment of the original project.

Brett was strongly representative of a generation that sought to lead British public opinion into a new awareness of the importance of environmental issues. Others such as Garth Christian, Nan Fairbrother and Max Nicholson followed. As Lionel Brett himself pointed out, 'the task for us is to hold the ship off the rocks until the tide comes in'. This sea change is still awaited.

Michael Spens

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