Sir Philip Dowson CBE, PRA RIBA (1924–2014)

Arup Associates founding partner who favoured a rational, scientific and functionalist approach but fell foul of Prince Charles over Paternoster Square

Sir Philip Dowson, who died on 22 August a few days after his 90th birthday, was old-school: very tall, reticent, somewhat patrician, a Royal Gold Medallist and one of the most important British architects of the late 20th century. This was true not only of his generally understated buildings, but also of the firm he helped to found. He joined the engineering firm Ove Arup and Partners in 1953 as an architect and, in 1963, with Ove Arup, Ronald Hobbs and Derek Sugden, became a founding partner and later chief architect of Arup Associates. 

Composed of an innovative and collaborative multi-discipline team of influential architects, engineers and quantity surveyors, Arup Associates’ approach to design was rational, scientific, and based on a belief that the function of a building, the nature of the materials used and the necessary methods of construction should form the basis of design. This approach proved convincing across sectors including factories (the IBM Process Assembly Plant in Havant) Oxbridge colleges (notably at St. John’s) concert halls (Snape Maltings for Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival was an Arup project) and company headquarters and back offices such as the tiered Lloyds in Chatham and the Gateway House development in Basingstoke for Wiggins Teape – the first phase with its famous shaggy hanging gardens, the second a pioneering use of natural ventilation for a modern office building. 

Arup Associates’ approach to design was rational, scientific, and based on a belief that the function of a building, the nature of the materials used and the necessary methods of construction should form the basis of design

In the 1980s the Broadgate development in London marked the start of a somewhat uneasy period stylistically for Dowson’s Arup. Always a man with a preoccupied air and a vocal delivery as clipped as a box hedge – possibly a result of his officer-class wartime background in the Royal Navy, where he served with distinction in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres – he encountered some resistance to the modernist, functionalist approach during the post-modern era. If Broadgate – largely the work of the late Peter Foggo – shows slight PoMo leanings, this was at any rate a rapid straightforward commission compared to the ordeal he underwent as the first masterplanner of the new Paternoster Square redevelopment next to St. Paul’s Cathedral. There he had the misfortune to run into Prince Charles and his followers who did their level best to unseat him from the commission and eventually succeeded – but not before Dowson had been forced into a compromised modernism-meets-neoclassicism design in an attempt to mollify a resurgent traditionalist tendency as represented by John Simpson’s alternative proposal. 

In the face of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings of the Charles set but unwilling to enter into a public row, Dowson was obliged to conduct off-the-record press briefings in restaurants to put his side of the story. However, although his Paternoster scheme foundered, its classically-tinged aesthetic resurfaced in the first phase of Arup’s Canon’s Marsh development in Bristol.  

Educated at Gresham’s School, Norfolk, he spent a year reading mathematics at University College, Oxford, before joining the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He returned to study Art History at Clare College, Cambridge, from 1947 to 1950, and then trained at the Architectural Association. 

Among numerous awards and honours, Sir Philip Dowson was made a CBE in 1969, and received his knighthood in 1980. At the Royal Fine Art Commission he was known by his chairman, Lord St John of Fawsley, as Philip the Great – in contrast to Sir Philip Powell of Powell & Moya, dubbed Philip the Good. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1979 and two years later awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. He was president of the Royal Academy from 1993 to 1999.

He is survived by his wife, Lady Sarah Dowson MBE, his son, two daughters, and six grandchildren.