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In memoriam: Trevor Dannatt RA

Published 27 August 2021

Spencer de Grey RA pays tribute to architect Trevor Dannatt RA, who died in February 2021 aged 101.

  • From the Summer 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    What an incredible life – it spanned the creation of the modern world as we know it today, from the demise of the Edwardian era at the end of the First World War to the detailed photographic exploration of Mars earlier this year. But Trevor’s life (1920–2021) was not built on superlatives: he eschewed the bright lights, the glare of publicity. Instead, as an architect, he promoted quiet sophistication, always thoughtful, creative and humane.

    Introduced to the work of Le Corbusier by his art teacher at school, Trevor was educated at the then Regent Street Polytechnic from 1938: “I was summoned by buildings,” he later wrote. He first worked with Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, before joining Peter Moro and the team designing the Royal Festival Hall under Leslie Martin RA. He continued to work informally with Martin, together with Colin St John Wilson RA, when he set up his own practice in 1952, which became Trevor Dannatt and Partners in 1970 and subsequently Dannatt Johnson in 1994, with David Johnson.

  • Trevor Dannatt RA, Laslett House, Cambridge

    Trevor Dannatt RA, Laslett House, Cambridge, 1958.

  • Trevor’s design approach was influenced not only by Le Corbusier but also by Scandinavian design, and in particular the architecture of Gunnar Asplund and Alvar Aalto. This is nowhere more evident than in one of his earlier houses, the now-listed Laslett House in Cambridge (above). Elegantly composed with great clarity and precision, understated but with great presence, the house could have been designed yesterday. Nine years later, Trevor won the competition for a conference centre and hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, his largest commission. A powerful composition, its clearly expressed concrete structure creates grand internal spaces appropriate to the brief (the entrance hall; below). His work in Riyadh continued in 1985 with his appointment as architect for the new British Embassy, again celebrating his compositional skills. More recently, Trevor designed the beguiling new Victoria Gate at Kew. Among his many educational projects, his adaptation of Wren’s masterpiece at the Royal Naval College for the University of Greenwich shows great sensitivity.

    Trevor’s interests were wider than just architecture. He was truly a universal man. Prose, its writing and the writing of poetry featured extensively throughout his life. He was much engaged in the debate about the language of post-war architecture. Roger Stonehouse, in his illuminating book on Trevor, opens by quoting him at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1969: “Literature makes order, shows a whole view of human life, sets it in a matrix. Likewise architecture.” He was a great admirer of T.S. Eliot, ending the same lecture by reading his poem Little Gidding. He loved classical music, celebrating his centenary with a concert at St Alfege’s in Greenwich given by the Tallis Scholars, and playing piano duets with a flautist friend well into his 101st year.

  • Trevor Dannatt RA, King Faisal Conference Centre and Hotel, Riyadh

    Trevor Dannatt RA, King Faisal Conference Centre and Hotel, Riyadh, 1973.

  • It is also the fine arts for which Trevor will be remembered. He amassed an impressive collection of late 20th-century art, which he gave to the Whitworth in Manchester, where he curated the exhibition Now you see it in 2006. His lifelong friendship with Patrick Heron typified his involvement with artists. But he also performed. At dinner with his wife Ann recently, he gave a faithful rendition of one of Arthur Marshall’s headmistress impersonations, word perfect at the age of 100. He was elected as an Associate of the RA in 1977 and a Member in 1983. In 2019 I asked Trevor, along with the other architect RAs, to contribute to a display of contemporary full-size models of architectural details to celebrate the RA’s 250th anniversary. He constructed a section of a fireplace – the hearth played an important role in his domestic work. The love and care, the obsession with detail, impressed me more than words can say – first carefully worked sketches and then the piece itself, specially made.

    Spencer de Grey RA is an architect and Head of Design at Foster + Partners.

    The Laslett House in Cambridge was sold by The Modern House.

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