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Bennett, Sir Hubert (1909–2000), architect, was born on 4 September 1909 at Dalesbrook, Worsley Road, Swinton, Lancashire, the youngest of the four sons of Arthur Bennett (b. 1871), surveyor to the duke of Bridgewater's estate, and his wife, Eleanor, née Peel (b. 1873). The family were such stalwarts of the local Methodist church that it was nicknamed Bennett's chapel. Bennett was taken as a child to his father's drawing office and had drawing lessons from the age of eight. He was educated at Eccles grammar school and took courses in science and building construction at the Royal Technical College, Salford, before securing a scholarship to the Manchester School of Art to study architecture, where his tutors included R. A. Cordingley and Leslie Martin. Bennett's drawing skills secured him numerous prizes between 1932 and 1934, among them the Soane medal (1934); his prize money was spent travelling in Europe and the United States, though the Royal Institute of British Architects' annual scholarship to the British School in Rome eluded him until 1936. The competition was open only to bachelors, and such was Bennett's determination to win it that he delayed his marriage until 1938. Elected a fellow of the RIBA in 1941, he sat on the institute's council three times from 1952 and served as its treasurer between 1959 and 1962.

On qualifying in 1933, and with no other jobs available, Bennett turned to teaching and joined the staff of the Leeds School of Architecture, where he passed on his rapid drawing techniques and belief in hard work. While at Leeds he designed an ‘open-air’ school at Swinton, near Manchester (where his father was a councillor), which pioneered the use of an advanced welded steel frame. In 1935 Bennett was appointed deputy head of the Regent Street Polytechnic, London, where two years later he became superintendent of the course, raising its standards by bringing in high-calibre architects as part-time teachers. A larger school at Swinton followed in 1940 but one at Yarm, near Darlington, was curtailed by the war. On 30 December 1938, at St Mark's Church, Worsley, Lancashire, he married the textile designer and mural artist (Florence) Louise Clarke Aldred (1910–1997), daughter of Edward Clarke Aldred, coal merchant. The couple had met at the local tennis club when they were aged fourteen. Prior to her marriage Aldred had designed fabrics for, among others, the Edinburgh Weavers, Donald Brothers, and Warner & Sons Ltd. During the late 1930s she was head of textiles at Salford School of Art and in 1939 took up the same position at the Reimann School of Art and Design which had recently moved from Berlin to London. She designed textiles for her husband's early schools, but her career was interrupted by the war and the birth of the couple's three daughters between 1939 and 1946.

From 1940 Bennett was employed in York by the War Office, northern command, to secure requisitioned historic buildings from damage by troops. Two years later he won a competition, never realized, for development of the Castle Hill site at Ilkley, Yorkshire. In June 1944 he was sent by the War Office to Southampton as its first city architect, to redress an acute housing shortage and to produce a plan for post-war rebuilding. Bennett relieved the immediate problem by importing prefabricated timber bungalows from the United States and oversaw the installation of 2000 properties across the city. In search of a greater challenge, but with no work in private practice available, in 1945 he secured the position of county architect to the West Riding of Yorkshire, having failed to be appointed to the equivalent post for Lancashire. Here he made his greatest impact as a designer and established his reputation as head of a team of 300 architects, then the largest office outside London. By influencing the licensing system for building materials, and by securing timber from disused air-raid shelters, he was able to build at Wakefield a large open drawing office for his staff, known as ‘Bennett's plan factory’.

Half of the West Riding architects were employed in designs for schools—characterized by their use of field stone or brick in a gentle, modern style—for which Bennett secured the output of three brickyards. A total of 120 schools were built and furnished, together with 500 houses for the police service, police and fire stations, and court buildings. Bennett was most proud of a school built in Ilkley to American standards, with a larger floor area per pupil but lower ceiling heights, which he designed after touring the rural United States in 1949. He also produced prefabricated timber classrooms for colliery villages where pupil numbers fluctuated depending on the activity of the local mine. Bennett and his team were also responsible for converting several Yorkshire country houses into teaching establishments, including Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, adapted as the Women's National College of Physical Education, and adding new facilities to existing houses, such as Bretton Hall, near Wakefield, which became a centre for theatre and art studies. Bennett designed his own house at Linton Lane, Wetherby, in reused stone, which won a Ministry of Housing and local government award in 1954—the first of five such awards he received over the next thirteen years.

In 1956 Bennett was invited to join the shortlist for the post of chief architect at the soon to be vacated by his former tutor, Leslie Martin. He was interviewed along with Richard Llewelyn Davies, Stirrat Johnson-Marshall (both known for their progressive ideas) and three other county architects, and—to his surprise—he was appointed in October of that year. At the LCC Bennett headed the world's largest architectural practice, with 3000 staff arranged in small groups pursuing their own projects. Bennett was eager to intervene but held back, aware of his architects' diligence, and instead confined himself to civic design and strategy in ways that consolidated the innovations of his predecessors, John Henry Forshaw and Robert Matthew, as well as Martin. At the LCC, as in the West Riding, Bennett's office combined architectural design with support services including furniture design, paint colours and decoration, photography, and model making. He also gave many public works commissions to private architects from an approved list of London practices, so as to increase productivity and the variety of design. As a civic planner he was willing to promote the controversial (and ultimately unrealized) high-rise ‘Monico’ scheme for Piccadilly Circus, speaking for it at a public inquiry, and Richard Seifert's 36-storey Centre Point development (1963–7). Bennett's principal design work at the LCC was his styling of the pedestrian subways and hard landscaping of the new gyratory systems at Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch, built in connection with the widening of Park Lane—a project whose formality the critic Ian Nairn dismissed as ‘hopeless’. On other occasions Bennett sought to modify the work of a group of LCC architects, led by Norman Engleback, for a brutalist South Bank arts complex situated between the Royal Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge. Bennett backed down over the South Bank plans when his team threatened to resign.

In 1965 the LCC lost many of its responsibilities when it was remodelled as the Greater London council (GLC), with Bennett particularly regretful of the loss to the boroughs of housing and local planning, as well as the departure of many of his staff attracted by higher salaries. However, the schools division, now working for the inner London education authority, was not affected; and nor was the department's work in expanding towns such as Swindon, Basingstoke, and Andover, where he oversaw the design of housing, schools, and factories for Londoners leaving the capital. Bennett also retained control over the Thamesmead scheme for social housing in south-east London. This was an ambitious project to erect precast concrete terraces and point blocks to raise the development above the waterlogged Erith marshes. Characteristically Bennett was prepared to endorse, and later defend, the project though it was not one of which he personally approved. Bennett was architect to the LCC during the most radical years of London's post-war rebuilding. There was a wide divergence between his personal, conservative style and the projects he oversaw, many of which are still controversial. However, he was a believer in the large scale and the progressive role of architecture—whether it was a new gyratory system at Piccadilly Circus or Centre Point, or the creation of a new town at Thamesmead. The LCC's fervent young architects saw Bennett as old-fashioned and never gave him the respect afforded to his predecessors; nevertheless under his command they enjoyed a remarkable freedom of design. The LCC's councillors were happy to endorse these very radical projects, and Bennett's skill was in delivering so many monumental projects that reflected the spirit of the times.

In 1970 Bennett was knighted and early in the following year he left the GLC to join the English Property Corporation (EPC) who sought an architect to join its board of directors. In this capacity Bennett generated efficiencies by reducing from forty to nine the number of architectural practices with which EPC, as Star Holdings Ltd, engaged. He commissioned buildings from Sir Frederick Gibberd and John Smith Bonnington, and himself designed six banks in Brussels, offices near Paris, and a conference centre in Caen, Normandy. In 1978 Bennett was required to resign from EPC and to resume his architect's registration when he won a competition to build a new conference centre at Cannes, which was opened in 1982. Further commissions included a £150 million palace at Muscat for the sultan of Oman (also completed in 1982) and an extension of UNESCO's headquarters in Paris (1980–85). Having built himself a luxurious house at Bramley, near Guildford, he later moved to Broadfields, Ripsley, near Liphook, Hampshire. His final design, in 1999, was a lych-gate for St Luke's church at nearby Milland. Sir Hubert Bennett died on 13 December 2000 at Mount Alvernia, Guildford, Surrey, and was survived by his three daughters.

Elain Harwood

Sources  

biography file, RIBA BAL · interview, BL NSA, architects' lives · The Times (15 Dec 2000) · The Guardian (23 Dec 2000) · The Independent (25 Jan 2001) · RIBA Journal, 45 (13 June 1938), 744–50 · Building Design, 31 (16 Oct 1970), 4 · H. G. H. Marshall, British textile designers today (1939), 36–9 · WW · census returns, 1911 · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

RIBA BAL, biography file

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview, architects' lives


Likenesses  

J. Havinden, portrait, photoprint, c.1930, RIBA · R. H. Galway, group portrait, photoprint, 1956, RIBA · S. Lambert, photoprint, 1957, RIBA · group portrait, photograph, 1967 (with Queen Elizabeth), Rex Features, London · photograph, repro. in Architects' Journal (2 Dec 1943), 400

Wealth at death  

£770,088: probate, 5 April 2001, CGPLA Eng. & Wales