The Architect – Henry Elder

This biography has been reproduced from the Manchester Modernist Society blog

View the cinemas of Henry Elder here.

Henry Elder was born in a terraced house in Lower Broughton Salford in 1909. He originally trained at the Royal Technical College in Salford to be a bricklayer but his aspirations and talents meant he soon progressed to The Manchester College of Technology, finally training to be an architect at Manchester University’s School of Architecture. At a precociously young age he became a partner in the firm of Roberts, Wood and Elder – a firm making a name for themselves mainly in cinema design. Elder designed a house for himself and his family in Timperley at the age of 24 and he was only 25 when he designed perhaps his most well known building – the former Longford cinema on Chester Road Stretford – now a Grade II listed building.

Other cinemas and private houses followed but the Second World War brought a halt to his work. Before the war Elder had become fascinated by Japanese architecture and had travelled to the country and had had his observations published. Ironically the expertise and insight he gained was utilised by the military during the war and he was consulted on how best to destroy Japanese buildings with aerial bombing. For this work he received an MBE but it apparently sat very uneasily with Elder – torn by patriotic loyalty and the knowledge he was serving to destroy a nation he had much regard and respect for. His wartime experience were to greatly influence his later life’s work. Lack of jobs due to post war austerity and a growing disillusionment with the architectural profession in the UK led him to emigrate to North America in 1958.

He taught at Cornell University and was eventually to direct the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia. His teaching was, at the time, radical and controversial. He promoted the increased enrolment of women and encouraged his students to develop a greater understand of architecture as opposed to just churning out an endless stream of jobbing architects. He promoted the idea of sustainable architecture, decades before the concept had a name – emphasising the need to build in harmony with the surrounding landscape and using materials with the lowest environmental impact. His ideas preceded ideals that would become the norm in the 1960’s – a proto hippy if you like.

He was hugely respected by his students and is still talked of fondly by a whole generation of North American architects. His name still lives on in a UBC scholarship which according to the UBC website is “A prize that has been endowed by friends and former students of Henry Elder, Director of the School of Architecture from 1961 to 1975, to recognize his inspirational and humanistic qualities which brought a spirit of enquiry and joy in the study of architecture.”

Not bad for a lad from a scruffy terrace in Salford.

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