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John E Dangerfield, known for museums and galleries as well as military designs

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Australian-trained architect who rejected art school for a more practical career

Dangerfield - second from left - with the Queen at the opening of Knightsbridge Barracks. Credit Dangerfield family
Dangerfield - second from left - with the Queen at the opening of Knightsbridge Barracks. Credit Dangerfield family Credit: Dangerfield family

John E Dangerfield, trained in Australia, became one of Britain’s most accomplished exhibition and museum gallery designers. But his first significant job as an architect in the UK was a large and very different one: from 1962 to 1970 he worked for Basil Spence on projects preparing for and culminating in his Knightsbridge Barracks for the Household Cavalry, with its 33 storey, 94m accommodation tower, on the edge of Hyde Park. He was also site architect for the project. With its brief to accommodate more than 500 soldiers of all ranks and 273 horses within an easy canter of both Buckingham Palace and Horseguards Parade, this was to say the least a highly unusual and complex challenge.

With some continuing work on the Barracks to get him going, he set up John Dangerfield Associates in 1971, steadily moving into exhibition and cultural work. He designed a prizewinning demountable mobile theatre for the National Eisteddfod of Wales, a number of exhibitions for Scandinavian clients (his architectural heroes were Aalto and Schinkel) and in the late 1980s he led the design team for two phases of the Imperial War Museum’s permanent historical exhibition, under the directorship of Alan Borg.

His practice undertook other typologies too, such as the HQ of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Hampstead, opened in 1985 and still flourishing, and a large refurbishment and extension of the ICI HQ on Millbank.  Soon he was attracting commissions overseas such as the large visitor attraction of Singapore’s Fort Siloso on Sentosa Island.

  • Dangerfield, left, with Alan Borg and clients at the Imperial War museum in the late 1980s.
    Dangerfield, left, with Alan Borg and clients at the Imperial War museum in the late 1980s. Credit: Dangerfield family
  • Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence weapon display.
    Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence weapon display. Credit: Dangerfield family
  • Inside Knightsbridge Barracks – stair and lounge of the sergeants' mess. Credit Architectural Press Archive-RIBA Collections
    Inside Knightsbridge Barracks – stair and lounge of the sergeants' mess. Credit Architectural Press Archive-RIBA Collections Credit: Architectural Press Archive-RIBA Collections
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In 1994 his practice became part of Tarmac Professional Services as TPS Dangerfield, and in 2004 moved to Austin-Smith:Lord as A-S.L Dangerfield. During these periods he designed numerous exhibitions, museum galleries and feasibility studies in the UK and overseas, ranging from the Bodleian and Museum of the History of Science in Oxford to the Museum of Coastal Defence in Hong Kong and the New National Museum of Science and Technology, Thailand.  At one point he found himself collaborating with Daniel Libeskind on a design for a Salisbury Cathedral visitor centre to house its copy of the Magna Carta.

The strand of military-related work begun with Spence continued throughout his career in military exhibitions and museums including studies for the Royal Armouries Museum. For the final part of his active career from 2004-9 he returned to solo practice in Shrewsbury. There among other work he acted as consultant to Austin-Smith:Lord on the design of the Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.

  • The Imperial War Museum atrium exhibition as designed by Dangerfield.
    The Imperial War Museum atrium exhibition as designed by Dangerfield. Credit: Dangerfield family
  • The scale and complexity of the barracks set Dangerfield up for his own practice.
    The scale and complexity of the barracks set Dangerfield up for his own practice. Credit: Architectural Press Archive-RIBA Collection
  • Knightbridge Barracks - Dangerfield worked full time on this for Sir Basil Spence.
    Knightbridge Barracks - Dangerfield worked full time on this for Sir Basil Spence. Credit: Henk Snoek-RIBA Collections
  • John Dangerfield, centre, with his Swedish clients.
    John Dangerfield, centre, with his Swedish clients. Credit: Dangerfield family
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Dangerfield had not entered architecture by a conventional route.  Although born in London and raised in Edinburgh in wartime, he and the family moved to Australia in 1947 as his father had become managing director of a large land-management company in Sydney.  An art teacher at the Edinburgh Academy had predicted an architectural career for him at the age of 11. In Sydney, he tried a year at art school but decided he wanted to apply his aptitude for art to a more practical career.  He duly found himself working in a design office on fixtures and fittings for Qantas and large office projects.

He qualified as an architect by taking the exams after personal tuition – later he was to regret missing the experience of architecture school – and worked in a number of practices at a time when Australian architecture was starting to break free of its British and European (though not Scandinavian) influence.  He married Adrienne Penn in 1959 and the couple travelled to Europe in 1962, settling in London that year to begin his spell with Spence. The marriage eventually ended in divorce.

He is survived by Penn, their two children Christian and Tania, four grandchildren, and by Helen McPhail, his partner in life since 2002.