Obituary: The Independent, Sutherland Lyall

Ronald James Herron, architect and teacher: born London 12 August 1930; co-founder, Archigram Group 1960; Deputy Architect, Taylor Woodrow Construction 1961-65; associate, Halpern & Partners 1965-67; consultant architect to Colin St John Wilson, Cambridge 1967; in private practice, London 1968; Director of Urban Design, William Pereira Partners, Los Angeles 1969-70; partner, Archigram Architects 1970-75; in private practice 1975-77; partner, Pentagram Designs 1977-80; partner, Derek Walker Associates 1981-82; principal, Ron Herron Associates 1982-85, partner 1985-89; director, Imagination Ltd 1989-93; Professor of Architecture, University of East London 1993- 94; married 1952 Patricia Ginn (two sons); died Woodford Green, Essex 1 October 1994.

WHEN he died on Saturday at the age of 64 Ron Herron was professor of architecture at the University of East London. He had completed a review of Chinese schools of architecture for the Royal Institute of British Architects and was advising on a massive Far East project. He had recently built three exquisite fabric structure buildings in Japan, had several years before designed the design firm Imagination's award-winning headquarters off Tottenham Court Road in London, had just seen the page proofs of the third book about his work by the critic Reyner Banham and was collecting drawings for a fourth. His work had appeared in hundreds of architectural publications and a score of exhibitions, including a major retrospective at the RIBA Heinz gallery in 1989, and as part of the retrospective Archigram exhibition this year at the Kunsthalle in Vienna and the Pompidou Centre in Paris and due to travel further in Europe and to the United States.

That makes Herron sound like a rather grand figure. But he was in real life an endearing modest person, tall, close-cropped head, still comfortable in the T-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots of 30 years before. And he was still intensely curious about architecture and technology.

Throughout the Sixties he was a member of the six-man Archigram group, the radical architectural powerhouse which incited young architects around the world to question fiercely the practice of Establishment Modernism: the cliche of white walls, strip windows and columns, the White Architecture of post-war Europe and the United States. Herron and Archigram - via its annual magazine - sought to revitalise architectural thinking to accept and embrace the new technologies of white goods and mechanical servicing coming out of America. And the almost-available technologies of space exploration and robotics and environmental control thin-skin, fabric and tension structures and impermanence.

This was thinking which paralleled that of the Independent Group and its progeny Pop Art, but Archigram never saw itself as part of that. Their designs were fantastic, stunningly drawn, the ideas behind them always pushing the boundaries of possibility. Herron's seminal design Walking City, now the international icon of radical architecture of the Sixties, came about because he thought Archigram's interest in impermanence had not gone far enough. The missing dimension was indeterminacy of place and what could be more obvious, to Herron at least, than a city which moved?

Archigram was denounced in establishment architectural circles around the world and the group sneered at for not having built anything. But before the end of the Sixties their thinking had been incorporated in a number of Japanese buildings and, most notably, by the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the original inspiration for which has always been accepted as a 1968 Herron drawing, Oasis. What its older critics missed and its young readers did not was that Archigram's designs were about ideas rather than built architecture, about an architecture which responded to its users rather than forcing them into preconceived forms. Archigram is, according to contemporary foreign commentators, the only serious British contribution to the visual arts since the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Herron was the only son of a Bermondsey leather-working family whose father read and drew for pleasure and whose uncle had taken him to every London gallery before he was 10. With a scholarship to Brixton School of Building he was singled out to become a draughtsman and went to work for a small architectural practice, where he came across the work of Edwin Lutyens. During two years of national service in Germany during the Berlin airlift he decided to become an architect and enrolled in the evening course in architecture at Brixton, where one of his lecturers found him a post as an architect at the London County Council. In the same year, 1954, he married Pat Ginn, his lifelong, fiercely devoted wife.

At the LCC he met Warren Chalk, who introduced him to the world of jazz art and architecture and the work of Le Corbusier. With him he entered competitions (in which they used to come second), read US comics, Kerouac and Dos Passos and embraced the new domestic and electronic technology which was coming out of the US. Herron and Chalk were set to work on the design for the new South Bank complex in London and by the time senior figures in the department had started to interfere in the detailing Herron was offered by Theo Crosby the post of deputy architect to a massive scheme for the Euston area in 1961. He brought in Chalk and Dennis Crompton from the LCC and subsequently three young architects who had published his work in a small magazine, Archigram: Peter Cook, Mike Webb and David Greene. In 1963 Crosby suggested they make a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art and the six produced the exhibition 'Living City'. Now a recognisable group of collaborators, they decided formally to adopt the Archigram group name. People were calling them that anyway.

Still working as part of the group he later moved to work with Halpern & Partners, then with Colin St John Wilson and in 1968 went to the University of California at Los Angeles. He taught there for a year and then joined the office of William Pereira as director of urban design. When Archigram won a competition for an entertainments facility in Monte Carlo he returned to set up Archigram Architects with Cook and Crompton. Prince Rainier subsequently sold the site, the practice began to collapse and Herron eventually joined the leading design practice Pentagram as a partner. He worked briefly with another architect but set up in private practice in 1982, subsequently in 1989 merging with the firm Imagination, whose new headquarters he had just completed. During most of this time since 1965 he had taught a unit at the Architectural Association.

In private practice again in 1993, he became the professor of architecture at East London.

Sutherland Lyall
The Independent 5 October 1994