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Ralph Erskine


View of Myrstugeberget, Masmo, Huddinge, Sweden, designed by Ralph Erskine.

Terrace houses at Gyttorp, Nora, Sweden. Photo: Bengt Oberger

Terrace houses at Gyttorp, Nora, Sweden. Photo: Bengt Oberger

Ralph Erskine Ralph Erskine, CBRE, RFS, ARIBA (February 24, 1914 – March 16, 2005) was an architect and planner who lived and worked in Sweden for most of his life.

[edit] Upbringing and influences
Erskine was born in 1914, in Monliaws, Northumberland, but spent his childhood in Mill Hill in the London Borough of Barnet (North London). His parents were socialists, adherents of the Fabian Society, which promoted the idea of the evolution of Britain into a socialist state.

His Scottish father was a Presbyterian priest but his parents nonetheless sent him to the Quaker school at Friends School Saffron Walden (1925-1931), probably because of their socialist beliefs. There, he became committed to the Quaker ideals, which laid the foundation for his views on society, man's place in it, and on architecture.

[edit] Education
During the 1930s, Erskine studied architecture for five years at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London under the direction of Thornton White. At the time, White’s curriculum required the study of classical architecture before students were free to follow their own ideas. One of his fellow students was Gordon Cullen who would become a well-known architectural illustrator, urban designer and theorist. Cullen advocated the improvement of urban settlements through an understanding and analysis of their picturesque qualities. This approach was profoundly influential on Erskine, who insisted in his work that the context and landscaping of his buildings be carefully integrated.

[edit] Career

The "Ortdrivaren" buildings in Kiruna.

After qualifying as an architect Erskine began work with the design team for Welwyn Garden City under the leadership of Louis de Soissons. He studied town planning and this interest broadened his approach to architecture, in particular about how buildings related physically and socially to their setting.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Erskine traveled to Sweden. He was attracted there partly by his admiration for the work of the Functionalist Swedish architects Gunnar Asplund, Sven Markelius and Sigurd Lewerentz and partly by the country's adoption of the social welfare model. In Sweden the political will was reflected in the national architecture and these two factors coincided with his own humanist beliefs. He would go on to make an important contribution to the architectural landscape of both his adopted country and to that of England.

In Sweden, England and Canada, he was responsible for the design of numerous innovative buildings reflecting his particular ideology. They include:

Gyttorp, Nora Minicipality, Sweden, 1945 to 1955, housing project for a factory town.
Svappavaara, Kiruna Municipality, Sweden, 1962, housing project for a copper mine above the Arctic Circle (this project influenced the design of the northern town of Fermont, Quebec).
Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, 1969.
Resolute, Nunavut
The Byker redevelopment, at Newcastle upon Tyne, from 1973 to 1978.
The Nya Bruket area in Sandviken, Sweden, 1973 to 1978.
The Stockholm University Library (opened in 1983), as well as several other buildings on the university campus.
Ekerö centrum (Tappström) in Ekerö Municipality outside Stockholm, 1983 to 1989.
The Vasaterminalen bus terminal in Stockholm, together with Bengt Ahlqvist and Anders Tengbom
The The London Ark, Hammersmith, London, 1990.
Greenwich Millennium Village, London, from 2000 to 2005.
Erskine was best known in Great Britain for his Byker Wall housing scheme in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, The London Ark, a commercial project in Hammersmith, London. However, it was his achievement in designing the winning scheme in a 1997 competition to develop the Millennium Community at Greenwich (Greenwich Millennium Village), London that brought his work to widespread attention of his compatriot Britons. This recognition came late in a productive, long and important career.

[edit] Death and legacy

A portion of Newcastle's Byker Wall.

On his death in 2005, Councillor Peter Arnold, leader of Newcastle City Council said of Erskine that he “was one of the twentieth century’s greatest architects and in Newcastle's Byker estate he gave the city one of Europe's finest post Second World War new housing communities. His approach was so different to everything happening around that time as he put the focus on social regeneration and the interests of local people, rather than just bricks and mortar. He built Byker Wall Estate around the community. Local people were fully involved in the design and rather than clearing properties and moving people elsewhere, the community was able to remain together.”

Ralph Erskine founded his own company in Sweden in 1939. In 2000 he invited his long-time collaborator Johannes Tovatt into a partnership, naming the company Erskine Tovatt Arkitekter AB. It was Erskine's will that on his death his name be removed from the company. Therefore his legacy lives on in the company called Tovatt Architects and Planners in Drottningholm outside Stockholm.

In 1984, with his wife he established the Ruth and Ralph Erskine Nordic Foundation, endowed by proceeds from the Wolf Prize in Arts, which he was awarded that year. Beginning in 1988, the foundation has awarded a bi-annual prize of US$10,000 and a medal designed by Ralph Erskine, for any person, group or organization that “has contributed to the construction of buildings or community structures of innovative social, ecological and aesthetic character. The contribution must respect functional and economical aspects, and be to the advantage of the less privileged”.

[edit] Personal
He met his wife Ruth at the Quaker school in Saffron Walden in the early 1930s. They were married in Stockholm in 1939 and had four children. Ruth died in 1988. He is survived by his children: Jane Kristina, Karin Elizabeth, Patrick Jon and Suzanne.


The Ark
Talgarth Road
London W6
United Kingdom

Ralph Erskine 1992

The Ark is an original and popular landmark greeting visitors to London as they drive in on the A4 through Hammersmith, from the west or Heathrow Airport. On a cramped site hemmed in by a concrete overpass on one side and a railway cutting on another, the Ark sits serenely if rather darkly, its brown glass hiding some long gaps between lettings.

Visually, the Ark is immediately striking both outside and in. Outside, it plays the Ark idea almost to the full, although early plans for a large ramp leading up to the entrance have not been fulfilled. The idea of such a ramp is still hinted at by the cutaway in the facade, where any metaphorical ramp would fold up into hull once the animal pairs were all on board. And real multi-level decks exploit the south-facing views over west London.


Inside, the bright, sky-lit spaces, floor-to-roof atrium, scenic elevators and white walls are a dramatic contrast to the dark skin - and indeed to the design of most open-plan office space.


The airy, open, deck-like layout inside is sumptuous and generous as office space - so much so that after Seagram, the original occupant, left the building, no other organization has moved in: an office concept so enlightened that it is struggling in the real world. The circulation and communal areas are wonderful, but at the cost of extraordinarily inefficient use of space in conventional office terms.

The Ark has achieved its completely original feel both inside and out while structurally building a surprisingly conventional building. As an ark, the structure cheats, as it is not contained within the 'hull of the ship'. The columns supporting the concrete floors rise vertically, and are outside the hull at ground level, faced in decorative brick and appearing as buttresses before they pierce the skin of the building. This detail occurs below the 'water level' of the A4 overpass, and is therefore scarcely visible while driving past.



How to visit

The Ark is an office building (currently empty) and is not normally open to the public. It is worth visiting from the outside. It is on the south side of Talgarth Road, just east of the Hammersmith roundabout.

By tube, the Ark is just a few minutes' walk from Hammersmith station. The tube station is in the middle of Hammersmith roundabout. Exit on the south side and walk east (towards central London) along Talgarth Road. 

By car, for a quick visit the easiest place to stop is in the BP service station on the south side of Talgarth Road on the left just before you reach the Ark if you are heading west out of town. 

For metered parking, leave the Hammersmith roundabout in the south-west corner, taking a small road which called Queen Caroline Street, underneath the flyover. Metered parking is signposted immediately on the right, in Sussex Place. Walk back east (towards central London) along Talgarth Road to find the Ark.

To visit the interior, look out for opportunities in London's annual late-September 'open house' weekend (