A tribute to Michael Manser RA: champion of modern housing

23 March 1929 – 8 June 2016

Published 24 June 2016

Known for his elegant style of housing, the founder of the Manser Medal leaves a legacy of modernism across the UK. Following the architect’s death aged 87, architectural historian Margaret Richardson pays tribute to a remarkable career.

  • Michael was a most distinguished architect and a very sympathetic person. His reputation established early on by his elegant glass and steel houses, he championed modern architecture throughout his career, and went on to launch what is now the most prestigious award for residential housing, the Manser Medal.

    I first got to know him when he became President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, from 1983–85, when I was working in the RIBA’s Drawings Collection. He was the first President to recognise the value of the Institute’s collections and made it possible for a major exhibition of drawings at the RIBA, The Architect as Artist, which the Queen opened in 1984.

    He was born in Bristol and studied architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic, before setting up his own practice in 1961; the modern style for which he became known influenced perhaps by Mies van der Rohe. He designed his own family residence, Golden Grove House in Surrey in 1960 – where he lived with Dolores “Jose” Bernini, an architectural critic, whom he married in 1953, and their two children, Jonathan and Victoria, who has her own architectural practice. They were an architectural family.

    He also designed Capel Manor in Kent in 1971 for John Howard MP, which was listed Grade II in 2013 and considered one of the most important examples of modernist houses in the UK.

  • He had to endure, however, with great tact, the speech by HRH the Prince of Wales at the 150th anniversary of the RIBA at Hampton Court Palace, when the Prince condemned the proposed National Gallery extension as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend”. The speech did much damage to the architectural profession and Michael did all he could to promote modernism in later years. He launched the Manser Medal in 2001, to be given annually for the best house of the year.

    Other larger projects followed, including the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow Terminal 4, much loved by J.G. Ballard for its vast atrium, resembling “a planetarium in the way that it salutes the skies above its roof”. He designed Southampton Eastleigh airport in 1994, The British High Commission, Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania in 2002 and much else. He had a gift for writing and wrote for and edited Architectural Design and was the Observer’s architectural correspondent from 1961-64.

    Michael was awarded the CBE for his services to architecture in 1993 – an honour he had declined in 1988, due to the controversy over modern architecture caused by Prince Charles. He was also elected an RA of the Royal Academy in 1994. In 1999, Michael transferred the director of the practice to his son, Jonathan, although he remained its Chairman until his death.

    Margaret Richardson is an architectural historian who has served on the Historic Buildings Council and was Curator of the Sir John Soane’s Museum.