John Graham obituary | Architecture
My friend John Graham, who died at the age of 93, was one of the key figures in the design of the new town of Harlow in Essex. He was the architect responsible for the completion of the Harvey Center shopping complex, in 1980, as well as the Adams House retail and office building in Market Square (and its iconic clock), completed circa 1956 as one of the first downtown buildings. . He then played an important role in the creation of the Gibberd Gallery, which opened in 2004.
Born in Manchester, John was the son of Mabel (née Hyde) and Gilbert Graham, a chartered accountant, and attended Stretford High School. After serving in the Royal Engineers from 1945 to 1948 in the occupation army in Germany, he obtained a first-rate degree in architecture from the University of Manchester and in 1952 joined the Harlow Development Corporation.
John received the Rome scholarship in 1953 and spent his time in Italy making measured drawings of Roman temples that will remain touchstones throughout his career.
In 1956 he joined the Harlow office of Frederick Gibberd and Partners, Gibberd having developed Harlow’s master plan in 1947. John became a partner in 1965 and designed the mosaic-tiled rooftop observation room of the Hotel de Town of Harlow (built in 1959 and influenced by the Roman arch forms that John had studied) and the first purpose-built indoor community sports center in the UK, as well as the Harvey Center and Adams House. His sensible additions to Main Street Old Harlow in the early 1970s won an award from the European Council for Architectural Heritage.
After Gibberd’s Harlow office closed in 1983, John retired and devoted himself to art. He set up a gallery in his old office and became a trustee of Harlow Art Trust, where we worked together. For over 30 years he helped develop the Sculpture Collection, which includes works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink, earning Harlow the title of City of sculptures.
Perhaps John’s lasting legacy will be the creation of the Gibberd Gallery. Gibberd had bequeathed a collection of watercolors to the city. When a new Civic Center was planned, John pitched the idea of a gallery space in the building for the collection to be on permanent display and, most importantly, to hold public exhibitions next door. Today, the gallery hosts community exhibitions, an artist residency, school workshops and contemporary exhibitions.
John represented values that evolved after the two world wars: a pride of civic duty – if we all work together, we can make things better for everyone – and a belief that culture (art, music, football, religion or knitting) is essential for a good life. Such values underlie the creation of new towns like Harlow.
From 1960 until the end of his life, John lived in a prefabricated house on the edge of Harlow, in the shade of a century-old oak tree. He married Britt Båckstrom, a Swedish singer, in 1954; she died in 2005.