Sir Philip Powell

Sir Philip Powell – architect of integrity

Stow, Derek

Derek Stow reviews the legacy of a pioneering and inspiring designer of patient-focused buildings, Sir Philip Powell, who died recently.

Born in 1921, Sir Philip Powell was an architect with an outstanding intellect and a creative ability that he exercised with absolute integrity. His influence on the development of postwar hospital architecture in the UK was profound.

He was able to rapidly assess a client’s needs, determine the key criteria to be met, appraise the site and consult the ‘Genus loci’, and then propose a design strategy that, whilst respecting its context, would result in a building that provided the optimum environment for its intended users.

In 1946, at the age of 25, he and Hidalgo Moya won the Pimlico Housing Competition for what, at the time, was the largest project in Europe. Over the next 14 years this commission provided the foundation upon which the practice they cofounded – Powell & Moya (P&M) – was built. In 2000, picked from over 1000 entries, it won the Civic Trust Award for the best project completed in the last 40 years of the century.

From the outset Powell & Moya’s practice developed in step with the postwar Government’s strategy for national recovery. Further housing projects were followed by Mayfield School, Putney, one of the first ‘comprehensives.’ Only then did P&M start to attract commissions in the healthcare sector.

The 60-bed psychiatric unit at Fairmile Hospital, completed in 1954, and the Sick Hospital at Borocourt, were both freestanding developments in the grounds of existing large mental institutions. The design guidance then prevailing was based on a closed regime of protective custodial care. For both projects P&M produced revolutionary design solutions, throwing open the new buildings to gardens landscaped for patient activities.

Then came the first large district general hospital – the Princess Margaret Hospital at Swindon. Over a two-storied podium containing the diagnostic/therapeutic departments, eight 40 bed wards, each with a solarium, were stacked in a further four stories either side of a central lift shaft.

This highly efficient and cost effective arrangement was taken up and developed by many others. P&M used it once more at High Wycombe – where they halved the number of beds per floor and cast them in a racetrack configuration.

The original scheme for Wexham Park Hospital, Slough was based on a similar built form to Swindon. At the very last moment this proposal was withdrawn and the scheme was built with all the clinical accommodation at ground level. The infrastructure of intersecting hospital streets, linking departments planned around courtyards to ‘L’ shaped wards (forming sheltered gardens), was the ultimate expression of Philip Powell’s quest for the therapeutic environment. Naturally lit and ventilated throughout, waiting areas became lungs, and the roof a potential window, with the whole hospital opened up to the landscape in which it was set – the original ‘patient-focused hospital.’

Post Suez, the 60s brought a demand for larger hospitals against a background of financial cutbacks and a shortage of healthcare professionals. P&M’s response was to take the basic elements of an enlarged Wexham Park, recast the built form to a more compact footprint and thereby create, at Wythenshawe, the first multi-level street hospital.

Philip Powell believed that the organisation of the site, the interrelationship of the functional elements, the infrastructure that linked them, the built form and its response to the landscape made for success. The detailed planning of the clinical areas was an important but transitory matter, since the requirements of the users were subject to continuous change in response to advances in medicine and technology. Hence he welcomed the advent of the Nucleus system, which he thought would free architects to concentrate on the environmental quality of the building. One of the most successful Nucleus developments was P&M’s hospital at Maidstone, which, whilst uncompromisingly modern, evoked the spirit of its Kent vernacular. This was followed by the Conquest Hospital at Hastings where the site on the Downs was like a vast amphitheatre facing the sea. The site and its location inspired a highly original solution to the spatial composition of the functional elements.

Philip Powell always had a particular empathy with children. It was therefore particularly fitting that the last healthcare project in which he was actively engaged should have been P&M’s very successful extension to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.

Although he retired from the practice in 1991 he continued to act as an assessor for a number of competitions, including those for the Royal Victoria and Mater Hospitals in Belfast. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1972, he was a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission from 1969 to 1994, and in 1974 Powell & Moya were the first partnership to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture.

He was an extremely modest man and hated publicity. Fortunately for us, the range, the quality, and the underlying humanity of the buildings continues to speak for itself.

Copyright Wilmington Publishing Ltd. Jul/Aug 2003

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