Viréndra Sahai, 1933 – 2014

Architect of care and vision whose work spanned the post-war, post-colonial years

Attending primary school under a mango tree in Uttar Pradesh, Viréndra Sahai’s class was learning by rote Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ when Virén had the temerity to ask, ‘Please sir. What is a daffodil?’ ‘Stupid boy, don’t you know what a daffodil is?’ replied the teacher. 

Virén was shocked to realise that the teacher had no idea either. It was his first indication that if he were to succeed in life he would have to leave India.

Virén qualified in Delhi and was employed as a draughtsman with Francis Blomfield, who had been resident architect to Robert Lutyens in the city. He then travelled to Rangoon, Burma, to work on low cost indigenous housing, and save money for a passage to England.

Arriving penniless in London in 1954, with only a letter of introduction to Raglan Squire & Partners in Eaton Square, he found the RIBA did not recognise his Indian qualifications. While working as an architectural assistant at Laing, he enrolled for a Certificate of Architecture at night school at The Polytechnic, Regent Street. His life was changed within days of his arrival not just by the climate and culture of post-war Britain, but by the power of the works of art he saw in his first-ever visit to a museum – the Tate Gallery. He was so moved by the works of Henry Moore, Matisse, Turner and Cézanne that he also enrolled to study painting at evening classes at the Central School of Arts, and had a one-man show while still a student.

In 1962, he took advantage of the boom in construction of post-colonial architecture for recently independent countries, working in Nigeria for Fry Drew & Atkinson as resident site architect for the stadium at Kaduna, and also in Tunisia. Continuing with British pioneers of the modern movement, he worked with Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall, and later Architects Co-Partnership (ACP). For the latter he was site architect for the Wolfson Building for Trinity College Cambridge – a striking brick-clad ziggurat for 90 undergraduate rooms built within a college court. Meanwhile he studied at The Poly­technic, Regent Street for his diploma in town planning. His consuming interest in the design of urban spaces drew from his 1969 town planning diploma thesis – an analysis of the design history of London squares. 

Appointed regional architect for the NHS Southwestern Regional Health Authority in 1974, Virén startled his management by insisting that he have a drawing-board in his office, and using it. He was responsible for the development of an alternative to the traditional hospital ‘street’ and Y plan surrounding the nurses’ staff base, developing, after extensive consultation, a regional standard ward plan for acute patients. 

At one meeting, top-heavy with senior management, he said, with a grin, ‘What we need is fewer chiefs and more Indians.’

Now based in Bristol, he objected to the closure of the architecture department of Bristol University in 1984 and became founder chairman of the Bristol Centre for the Advancement of Architecture, which was set up to support the involvement of the public and educators and reach out to everyone with a concern over the built environment. It initiated practice-based post-graduate education and research and survives as the highly successful Architecture Centre. 

Appointed chairman of the NHS advisory group on estate management strategy, Virén grappled with the NHS bureaucracy and its historic legacy of excessive ageing building stock in the wrong place and of the wrong type, unrelated to current demography and clinical practices. At one meeting, top-heavy with senior management, he said, with a grin, ‘What we need is fewer chiefs and more Indians.’

Virén was rewarded for his public service in 1985 with an OBE, and was appointed head of architecture, service engineering, surveying, and landscape, for Cambridgeshire County Council in 1987. In 1993 he became leader of the Urban Design Group for Cambridge Futures, proposing a strategy much commended by Lord Rogers.

Throughout his working life, Virén always devoted one day a week to painting, and in retirement it became his main occupation. Even though he loved European culture and philosophy, Virén nevertheless retained some Indian traits. He loved cricket and took great delight in trying to explain the Hindi concept of ‘ASH’, which loosely translates as ‘How pleasant it is to do nothing and to rest afterwards’. 

He is survived by his wife Ingrid, whom he married in 1966, his son Erik, and grandchildren Liam and Zara.