Thursday, 21 May 2015

Donald Wilson RIP

About a year or so ago I found myself sitting here thinking about Donald and how he was. I even left a message on the phone of the pub next to where he and Ann lived in Sydling St Nicholas in Dorset, at least lived there in 1982, when I went and worked for him on his building site. His obituary appeared before me last night, in the RIBA Journal, when I was once more scanning for information, since his name had cropped up in a book I was browsing on Aldington Craig and Collinge, the much respected practice that Don went to work for when life as an architect/builder got too much.
Life as an architect builder was indeed horrific, and I still have vivid memories of sitting in that pub after a days building with Jackie Hall, Ann's extremely attractive daughter, both exhausted and bemoaning the state of our aching limbs and our (separate) love lives.
I'd first met Don via his son Martin, who was at school with me, and his sisters (one of whom married the PE teacher) and Ann who was the school administrator. Don lived in a converted cottage with his first wife, hanging furniture and Free records, with a workshop where Martin and I would attempt to unseize at least one moped engine. The memories, as I said, are quite vivid, for it was my first encounter with the life of an architect with a hanging cane chair and bright cushions.
That life was clearly not a bed of roses, but Don, when not exasperated, had an excellent sense of humour and infectious personality. He was even a bit of a celebrity having done 'The House of the Future' for Granada TV. He was, in short, as exotic as you are likely to get in Wilmslow, Cheshire,  pre-tabloid celeb. Since my dad was encouraging me to study architecture he took an interest in Donald's gangly influence too, driving me over there whenever the workshop beckoned. I suppose what I'm telling you here is that Don is responsible for all this, all this life in architecture, as I sit completing to proofs of 'History of Architecture Retold', I think of him, even to the point of feeling a bit emotional about it.
Later Don took a keen interest in how I was getting on, he took me around the now demolished Mechanised Letter Office in Hemel Hempstead where he was project architect, laughing at the fact that the supposed breton brut concrete had been condemned six times, and introduced me to Peter Aldington, that lovely man with the beard, in the office at Turn End. I went over to Bath University to hear a lecture by Peter Smithson, that rather odd man in a funny tie, and sat with Don in his office. By then he'd been rescued, thankfully, by academia. Then I guess I went off on my own way, and I had no further thought, excepting the occasional Christmas card, until that moment last year. Funny how things catch up with you.
When I think of what Don stood for; understanding building inside out from first principles; making his own windows, kitchens, HiFi speakers, I get some horrible perspective on where it all went horribly wrong. It would be inconceivable to teach such stuff now, much the pity. Of course when Don went out to practice what he preached, he taught us a valuable lesson, that craft hardly forestalls economics, and you are in for a good deal of pain. But he did it, nothing could stop him, and that's admirable. Indeed, he demonstrated something rather more than that, a trait that lies at the heart of all the great architects (and perhaps the value of the architectural world in general) that in some way they seem more attenuated to life's possibilities and tragedies. They bring life alive in built form.
Cheers Donald, and that's what I was going to say; a big thankyou.

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