Michael Manser RA
Born: 23 March 1929
Elected RA: 8 November 1994
Throughout his long career Michael Manser has shown how the universal steel and glass aesthetic of the modern movement can be adapted to specific locations and roles. After studying at the Regent’s Street Polytechnic and a period working in London and the West Indies, he set up his own practice in 1964, making his name with a series of elegant, rural houses which often made skilful reuse of established landscaped settings. Glass boxes seemed to arise naturally from bases in traditional materials like stone. The dialogue between old and new fascinated him, and during the heated architectural debates of the 1980s he made an eloquent advocate for their creative fusion, in opposition to the traditionalist line favoured by Prince Charles.
Later and larger projects like the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 and the diplomatic enclave for Britain and other EU countries in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, show an inventive use of the same formal language. As airport sites almost inevitably lack meaningful context, Manser grouped all the accommodation in the 400 bedroom hotel into one, large, offset rectangle to create a powerful formal statement. Its completely glazed end wall adds an element of transparency, and makes it clear where the entrance is. Here the formal language helps to create both context and legibility. In another airport project, a terminal at Southampton, the same materials are used more playfully, formed into a series of curves which might refer to aircraft wings, or the idea of flight itself. At Dar-Es-Salaam the design uses an abstract architectural language to create a sense of identity appropriate to diplomatic buildings, but also responds to the climate, with sun shades and devices to encourage natural air movement through the interiors.
As well as running his architectural firm, Manser worked as an architectural journalist, contributing during the 1960s to the influential magazine Architectural Design, and to the Observer. Rarely for a leading architect, he also busied himself with the politics of the architectural profession, becoming President of the RIBA from 1983-5, a period which coincided with Prince Charles’ first attacks on modernist architects. Manser’s official position and trenchant opinions made him a natural spokesman for modernism, and he justifiably drew attention to the culpability of planners and the planning system for many of the poor buildings of the 1960s and 70s. Soliciting the support of architects like Richard Rogers RA and Norman Foster RA, he played a large part in rekindling the popularity of contemporary design.