9 August 2017 13:44

The University regrets to report the death of one of our original architects, Gabriel Epstein, on Tuesday 25th July.

On a visit to the University in 2009, Gabriel Epstein, then aged 91 was quoted as saying that to return to the campus was ‘a very magical experience’ and that it was great to see lots of activity going on as it did 40 years ago.

 

See below for an obituary written by University Archivist Marion McClintock.

 

GABRIEL EPSTEIN

Gabriel Epstein (1918-2017), FRIBA, Hon. D.Litt. (1970), who was the University’s site development architect from 1963 to 1989, died in Paris on 25th July 2017.   He leaves a widow, Josette, two children, Sophie and Marc (an older son, Jean-Luke, having died earlier this year), and five grandchildren (a sixth, Sarah, predeceased him). Gabi, as he was customarily known, was born in the Rhineland and originally apprenticed to Erich Mendelssohn in Jerusalem. After WWII he studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture and graduated with honours in 1949. In 1963 the architectural practice of Bridgwater, Shepheard and Epstein of London, of which he was a partner, successfully bid to become consultant architects to the nascent University of Lancaster. The presentation he gave at interview, with its simplicity, elegance and clarity of principles, was developed into the underlying pattern of the University site we see today. Work began at Bailrigg in October 1964, and in 1968 the practice obtained a Civic Trust Award “for making an outstanding contribution to the appearance of the local scene”; the same year that students moved into residence for the first time.  

It is difficult to overstate the contribution Gabriel Epstein’s principles and their implementation have made to the way the University functions as an organic institution, able to adjust and realign its buildings and their operation as needs develop and change. While he designed buildings for a wide range of further and higher education institutions, the Lancaster campus will remain as his most enduring legacy.

The site was challenging, 300 feet above sea level, with prevailing westerly winds and heavy clay soil that retains water. An early decision was made to build along the north-south plateau at the top of the hill, deploying a strict underlying grid that relied on a main pedestrian spine, undercut below by an east-west underpass that enabled vehicles to be segregated from pedestrians. He insisted on a system of flexible growth, evolving in line with the requirements of the people living and working within it. Buildings were all to be on a human scale and, with the exception of Bowland Tower that wrapped residence rooms around a boiler house chimney, no building was to be more than three or four storeys in height.  A rhythm of open courtyards, alternating higher and lower buildings, and a mixed economy of functions brought colour and life: a science building next to a college, in turn next to an administrative block, followed by a library, while the use of the attractive Stamford brick as cladding for the concrete frames, and the variations in fenestration and roof lines, introduced variety and change for the pedestrian. The north-south spine concealed a six-foot duct for services below, and passers-by were protected from the elements by canopies supported on sturdy brick pillars. Because work started at the centre and grew outwards, University life could proceed in the early years of development without being troubled by the building work at the edges.

Lancaster was exceptional in the pace it set for its initial setting up and everyone concerned worked under heavy pressure in its early years, not least the architects and contractors. Throughout, Gabi worked to his rule that buildings are about people, and they must be involved. Endless meetings and consultations took place with shadow syndicates for the colleges, and with departmental users, and the ideas generated there were taken away and incorporated.  In 1989, sending congratulations on the University’s 25th anniversary, he spoke of Lancaster as having been “a very special job, a key job, a favourite child . . .  it is still young – think of Cambridge”. The University was fortunate indeed to have a principal architect of such energy, talent and commitment, and every member of it is his beneficiary.

 

 

Marion McClintock

7th August 2017