Michael Pearson, 1933-2021
“There are some things I’ve done I’d like to discuss...” It was over lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club’s convivially-close tables that Michael Pearson first suggested we collaborate on a book about his rich life in architecture. I’d known him for a dozen years by that point, as a result of my efforts to find out who designed the elegant and mysterious Burne House in Paddington. Having admired it every day whilst working in the area, I was delighted that Michael’s idea meant we could now share that particular story more widely and wondered what else there might be to discover. The answer came over the next couple of years, as I thought, wrote and talked about his life and work by phone, in his home and on location to tease out the contents of The Power of Process.
I still remember that first meeting, at Michael’s office in Covent Garden. He had sent me a delightful letter, thanking me for my interest in what he called – with what proved to be characteristic modesty – “this shy and retiring building” and offering to tell me more since I also wanted to get Burne House listed. He was now showing me small wooden models that were used to test its massing, which I loved seeing, and explaining some of the theory behind it. I was unsuccessful in my listing efforts, but it was the start of my relationship with Michael.
He wrote to me from time to time thereafter on subjects he thought I might be interested in, which did indeed prompt me to find out more on many occasions – not easy in the pre-internet era. We spoke from time to time and exchanged Christmas cards, often on themes relevant to Lancaster or architecture and art (Michael’s father and grandfather were excellent artists as well as architects). Michael lived in central London then and we once had a lovely lunch at the RIBA, he making it politely but firmly clear to the waiter that we preferred to pour our own wine, thank you… During this period I was also honoured to be invited to join Michael’s family, friends and colleagues for an evening marking the centenary of the Pearson practice at the Architectural Association, where he had been President from 1973 to 1974.
Then came that offer at Chelsea. Duly agreeing on a way forward, I took advice from a few respected writers in the field and was amazed and delighted when Michael and I walked out of the first publisher we had approached with a confirmed deal. Every few weeks after that a thick package of papers from Lancaster would thump through my letterbox in London, windows onto Michael’s life and career. Long phone conversations opened them a little wider, and things started to come together. But you can’t write about architecture without experiencing it, and so twice Michael kindly arranged (and paid) for me to stay in Lancashire so that we could tour his built work, look through the rest of his papers and chat ‘on the ground’.
We did the latter for many hours on those weekends, at places as varied as Michael’s old grammar school and his local car wash and sustained when in his comfortable home by his wife Doreen’s superb cooking (initially I was put up in a rural B&B – the sight of sheep caught in the headlights of Michael’s car as we sped along an otherwise unlit lane in the rain will always remain with me – but a surprise awaited me on my final trip; I’d been booked into the newly-restored Midland Hotel in Morecambe, a treat he had arranged as a reward for ‘roughing it’ that first time! And indeed there was a shared bathroom at the B&B, but my own wet room at the Midland…) One Sunday we took a break and Michael drove me around the Lake District, a spectacular landscape of streams and fells albeit at one point with a helicopter parked on a lawn near Windermere. We had a nice pub lunch overlooking Grasmere.
For me those trips were a revelation. Stimulating, unusual and enjoyable even when sifting through boxes of Michael’s old papers alone one February morning in an unheated garage (his old yellow Mini was in the one next door), they were also helping me to publicise works that deserved that exposure. Burne House was at least highly visible, but I’m especially pleased to have included the subtle, contextual but wholly practical studio extension Michael designed for artist Richard Ewen and his wife Andi in Wiltshire. She remembers with delight how “Michael […] sent us this big box and out of this box came the studio” and fortunately Michael and I were able to visit the couple during this period. It was a delight to hear all four reminisce over a joint lunch, and the nascent historian in me was thrilled to be able to see the clients’ papers relating to the job after having already seen the architect’s.
The manuscript was eventually completed, and with images sourced, editing suggestions considered, design undertaken and some final additions made by Michael, all was complete. Three years after Chelsea, I answered the door to the postman in my pyjamas and received my very first copy of the finished book though fortunately I was rather better prepared for the launch event, held once more at the Architectural Association.
In the decade that followed we kept in touch. The letters and phone chats continued, with Michael relating the problems of contemporary commissioning and contracting and me updating him on my latest writing project. I enjoyed seeing his missives on the state of the profession published in Building Design or the Architect’s Journal, and managed to get a couple of my own in about Michael and Burne House. Later he asked me ‘what this LinkedIn thing is’, which amused me until I remembered him saying he’d never needed to advertise since the clients just kept coming. The festive pleasure of a well-chosen Christmas card also continued.
I am glad that I was able to speak to Michael last year as arrangements were being made for his personal papers to be donated to Lancaster Archives, something he had been trying to achieve for some time. It is more than fitting of course, and as my own recordings of our conversations are to be included I hope that future generations will be able to encounter a man who was exceptionally courteous, widely read, calmly articulate and drily amusing.
Charles Michael Pearson, architect, 6 March 1933 – 30 December 2021