CHARLES RATTRAY writes
I got to know Christopher Dean at the architecture school in Aberdeen in the early 1990s when I ran an annual first-year project analysing Modern houses. It was Robin Webster’s idea to invite Christopher to contribute; they had become friends in the early 70s when their practices both occupied George Romney’s house in Hampstead.
At the time I already knew of Christopher's practice—Castle, Park, Dean and Hook—and its Hull library in particular, as well as of his involvement with Docomomo.UK, then just a year or two old, but I was unprepared for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Modernism, his infectious passion (he seemed to have travelled every byway to visit every Modern building in England) and his unfailing good humour. The latter was especially welcome as he stayed with us and our two children, then both under the age of four, in a house decorated by crayon drawings and with an equally colourful library of food-encrusted story books.
For me these visits were both wonderful and memorable. We visited the best Modern buildings together in Aberdeen, including one that always reminded me of an early project by Leslie Martin and Sadie Speight from 1937-8. The project was familiar to me because I’d worked in Martin's studio; Christopher, seeing it out of the blue, immediately exclaimed "It’s Northwich Nursery!" Absolutely right. And since there aren’t many good examples of Modernism in Aberdeen, we also took in the view of a white, flat-roofed house from our local pub. I knew nothing of its history; given more time, Christopher would have been knocking on its door to find out.
In later projects we were joined by David Wild and Bob Maxwell as reviewers. After Christopher left to catch a train home early one afternoon, Bob continued the conversation with one student by imitating Christopher raising an orthodox Modern objection to his own, more mannered, point of view. It was a moment both instructive and highly amusing.
Doubtless some some present-day university bean-counter would describe these contributions as "adding value to the customer base". They certainly did. With one female student who was studying Scharoun’s House 33 at the Weissenhofsiedlung, Christopher went over the photographs and drawings she’d assembled, introducing it with typical enthusiasm. Finally he asked her "Did you choose this house?" and on hearing that it had been allocated, was all smiles as he said: "Well, you’ve got an absolute peach." She was—at least for a moment—in love.
An obituary by Dennis Sharp to our first chair, Christopher Dean, was published in the 30 April 1998 edition of the AJ, entitled "Architects pay tribute to Modern champion". (Click to read on AJ's site.)
Docomomo.UK was later chaired by Dennis Sharp (1933–2010)—architect, lecturer, curator, historian, author and editor. For more information on Dennis, click here.