1987 - Ralph Erskine CBE 1914 - 2005


Designer: Erskine, Ralph (1914-2005)
Copyright: Jeremy Preston/RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection (1970s)

Ralph Erskine was based for most of his career in Sweden. He designed numerous office buildings and housing developments and was best known in Britain for his influential Byker Wall housing scheme in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which turned its back on the cold winds from the sea; a commercial project, the Ark in Hammersmith; and the 1997 competition-winning Millennium Village in Greenwich, which was always quoted by then Deputy Prime Minister as his favourite housing.


Ralph Erskine was born in London to Fabian parents, a factor which, together with his espousal of Quaker beliefs, influenced much of his thinking on the social significance of architecture. Ralph studied architecture in the 1930s at the Regent Street Polytechnic where he was greatly influenced in his thinking on townscape and landscaping by fellow student Gordon Cullen.


He began his professional career working for Louis de Soissons on designs for the Garden City of Welwyn, studying town planning in the evening. At the time he developed an interest in the Swedish modernism of Asplund, Markelius and Lewerentz and he decided to move to Sweden. Ralph was a true humanist. His buildings radiate optimism, appropriateness and wit, which endear them to many. His philosophy of work accommodated the climate and the context together with the social and humanistic needs of people. He was concerned that the expression of buildings should engage the general public interest, generate a sense of ownership and appeal to genuine participation.

The Ark, Hammersmith, London

Designer: Erskine, Ralph (1914-2005)
Copyright: Joe Low/RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection (1991)

The Royal Gold medal citation referred to him as the father of community architecture, a fashionable cause at the time but one espoused by few modernists. ‘His most recent buildings demonstrate a continued richness of form and space, coupled with an inventiveness and sensitivity in his use of materials that has been aptly dubbed “soft machine”’.