John Partridge, 1924-2016

HKPA founder and RIBA vice president whose deep understanding of modern architecture produced the Hilda Besse building at St Antony’s College

John Partridge, 1924-2016, photographed in 1978.
John Partridge, 1924-2016, photographed in 1978. · Credit: RIBA Collections

John Partridge, who has died at the age of 91, was responsible for some of the most remarkable and distinguished modern architecture in post-war Britain.  As Sherban Cantacuzino said, ‘he was like a latter day Alberti’. With his partners from HKPA: Bill Howell, John Killick and Stan Amis, he developed an architectural philosophy born in the post war optimism that a better world could be built. Their approach not only chimed with the three principles of the modern movement – a systematic examination of human need, the constant reassessment of problems, and the use of contemporary technology – it was also contextual, allusive, ornamental and humane.

The dining hall of Partridge's 1970 Hilda Besse building at St Antony's College Oxford.
The dining hall of Partridge's 1970 Hilda Besse building at St Antony's College Oxford.

Their work demonstrates an interest in how you put buildings together and a deep love of construction. It has an almost puritanical insistence that every element is the inevitable outcome of the structural handling of the building but, unusually, this combines with a transformation of these elements into decorative, sculptural form both inside and out, creating the antithesis of the ’world of matchboxes and wall-span catalogues’ they abhorred. John revelled in expressing his deep understanding of construction, which pervaded his designs from beginning to end. As he said ‘in so far as we can claim to believe in any dogma it is the dogma of consistency – of architectural form, detailing, materials, colour, a reaction to the liquorice allsorts sort of architecture’. His best buildings are not only consistently beautiful but, because of his exquisite detailing, have withstood the test of time and are still a joy to visit. John was most proud of the Hilda Besse building at St Antony’s College, a masterpiece which was probably HKPA’s greatest work. ‘St Antony’s shocks twice. By its insistence on expression; and by its historical overtones,’ said the Architectural Review. Even at 80, it still rankled with him that it didn’t get an RIBA award the first year it was submitted. The assessor lacked John’s architectural sophistication and objected to there being a column between the two entrance doors. 

In so far as we can claim to believe in any dogma it is the dogma of consistency – of architectural form, detailing, materials, colour, a reaction to the liquorice allsorts sort of architecture

John was born in Crouch End, in north London, the youngest child of George and Gladys Partridge. He attended Highbury County School and Shooters Grammar School. When his father became ill, he took a job to support his family, working as a clerk in the LCC Public Health Department. He signed up for an LCC training scheme and enrolled in part-time classes and evening school at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture. In the early 1950s he joined the newly established LCC architects department, led by Robert Matthew and Leslie Martin. There he met Howell, Killick and Amis, war veterans like himbut fresh from the Cambridge School and the AA. He worked with them on a scheme for 2,000 dwellings at Roehampton before they launched their practice in 1959. From the start they worked together on ideas about architecture and limited the size of the firm so they could be actively involved in every scheme. 

Sadly John Killick developed MS in the practice’s early days and died in 1972; and Bill Howell was killed in a car crash in 1974. I don’t think John recovered from his grief at Bill’s death but he always ran the office meticulously and with great consideration for his staff, while also a vice president at the RIBA. He encouraged us to teach and think, though occasionally expressed frustration at our ineptitude. He burst out of his room one day, having ploughed through our correspondence, and intoned: ‘In future would you all please write in the style of Jane Austen’ which was met with gales of laughter.

John was a friend and mentor after I left the office. Once I asked his advice on a seemingly insurmountable problem, to which he responded with a tale from his early days at the LCC. An appalling letter arrived. Impatiently he waited for his boss with various solutions ready. After reading the letter his boss very carefully folded it into a beautiful aeroplane, which he threw gracefully out of the window. We laughed and of course he was right, so much trivia bogs one down and doesn’t matter at all but the important things live on – such as the architectural and life philosophy of this clever, talented, very kind man.

John’s wife Doris died in 2000. He is survived by his children, Richard (also an architect) and Jane.