Distinguished architect and urban planner, Ralph Erskine CBE FRS ARIBA
Ralph Erskine was based for most of his career in Sweden where he has designed numerous office buildings and housing developments. He was best known in Great Britain for his housing scheme at Byker in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a commercial project, the Ark in Hammersmith, London. Most recently his achievement in designing the winning scheme in the 1997 competition to develop the Government’s first Millennium Community at Greenwich, London, has brought his work to the attention of many in the capital.
Ralph Erskine was born in 1914 and spent his childhood in Mill Hill, a former village now part of suburban North London. His Scottish father was a Presbyterian priest who worked in a shipping office in the City of London; his mother was a determined lady who had been a dedicated university undergraduate. Both his parents were drawn to the ideals of the Fabian Society of socialist intellectuals, whose early driving force was provided by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, together with Bernard Shaw. The society is devoted to the promotion of a socialist state in Britain by evolution rather than revolution, and by education and public debate as well as writing of research papers.
Although not themselves Quakers, Erskine’s parents sent him to a Quaker school, The Friend’s school in Saffron Walden. He studied between 1925 and 1931 and became committed to the Quaker beliefs which are fundamental to his views on society, man’s place in it and, naturally, on architecture. It was at school that he first met his wife Ruth, who also attended the Friend’s school at the same time. They married in Stockholm Town Hall in 1939, two days before war broke out, Ruth and Ralph lived happily together until Ruth died in 1988. They had four children, three girls and a boy.
Ralph Erskine studied architecture during the 1930s at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London. The school in those days was run by Thornton White, who based the initial part of the five year course on a study of classical architecture before allowing students to become freer to follow their own ideas. Many students left the course due to the economic depression but Erskine stayed on for the full five years. Among his fellow students was Gordon Cullen who went on to become a great architectural illustrator and propagandist for ‘townscape’, as well as for the improvement of our villages, towns and cities through an understanding and analysis of their picturesque qualities. Erskine’s insistence in his work that the surroundings and landscaping of his buildings is carefully worked out and not left to chance was due in part to the influence of Gordon Cullen’s work.
After qualifying as an architect Erskine started his career working for Louis de Soissons’s office designing the Garden City of Welwyn. At the same time as working at Soissons’s, Erskine managed to find the time to study town planning in the evenings. This interest in town planning gave him an expansive view of architecture; particularly of how individual buildings related both physically and socially to the infrastructure of towns and communities.
As a young architect, Ralph was committed to the new ideas of architecture and planning. He became interested in the political development of Scandinavia and set off for Sweden, despite the looming war with Nazi Germany, with a bicycle, rucksack and sleeping bag. Also, he was attracted to Sweden partly by the work of Asplund, Markelius and Lewerentz. Sweden was building a prototype for the welfare state with architecture to match. The Stockholm exhibition of 1930 had confirmed Sweden’s position at the time as a country that was building extensively using a modern architecture. As an immigrant in Sweden he saw the impact of the arctic climate and its challenge for the built environment. Early in his career, this insight became a distinguishing feature in his architectural expression, in urban planning and in detailing.
Ralph Erskine has had an immense influence on the Scandinavian architectural debate. He has been faithful to his belief in the development of a good and equal society and he has, without compromises, pledged and fought for the need for social and political awareness in the built environment.
Ralph was a true humanist. His buildings radiate optimism, appropriateness and wit, which endear them to many. His philosophy of work accommodated the climate and the context together with the social and humanistic needs of people. He was concerned that the expression of buildings should engage the general public interest, generate a sense of ownership and appeal to genuine participation.