John Wells-Thorpe, architect
John Wells-Thorpe (1928-2019) studied architecture at Brighton and had a varied career in Sussex and overseas, including becoming Vice-President of the RIBA and President of the Commonwealth Association of Architects, alongside work with several charitable trusts. He is best known in the city for his design of Hove Town Hall building.
As a practitioner he ran a firm in Sussex, was later an itinerant architect overseas, a Council member and Vice-President of the RIBA, an activist in charitable causes and an extensive world traveller in voluntary activities, principally for the Commonwealth Association of Architects, of which he was President.
John Wells-Thorpe designed more than £65 million worth of building projects in the UK and overseas and worked world-wide including projects for a ‘relocatable church’, a TV studio in the Arabian desert, financial headquarters abutting St Paul’s Cathedral and an environmental impact study for a mangrove swamp in Malaysia. His work in Brighton and Hove included Hove Town Hall (1970-74) and the Brighthelm Centre (1987), fronted by Helen Skelton’s sculpture of ‘Loaves and Fishes’.
He became interested in the issues surrounding hospital design, was founding chair of South Downs NHS trust and a contributor to The Healing Environment, published by the Royal College of Physicians. He still found time to chair government enquiries and be a member of a BBC Advisory Board, and published his recollections in Behind the Facade: an architect at large in 2009.
Dealing with Margaret Thatcher, Donald Soper, Anita Roddick, Sir Kenneth Clark, Cleo Laine, The Duke of Gloucester and Margaret Atwood along the way, John Wells-Thorpe encountered many characters, and in the memoir shares his impressions of them with wit and vivid observations. It was reviewed by Michael Manser, past president of the RIBA:
“It is an unusual book, not least for its opening sentence : “If my father had not committed suicide I might not have become an architect” which may account for the marginally detached way in which he writes of how his life unfolded; even for the title of his book: “Behind the Façade”.
“He has had a varied and interesting career. As a practitioner running a medium sized firm in Sussex, later as an itinerant architect overseas, a Council member and Vice-President of the RIBA, a magistrate for many years, an activist in charitable causes and an extensive world traveller in voluntary activities, principally for the Commonwealth Association of Architects, of which he was President. Finally he chaired the South Downs NHS Trust and still found time to chair government enquiries and be a member of a BBC Advisory Board. He is still active in the public sector.
“The book is entertaining, sometimes ruefully, about the vicissitudes and high spots of architectural practice, the ironies and the fun of being in the profession. Wells-Thorpe is a great raconteur and leavens his tales with lively and often caustic wit… As I put the book down I realised that the author has set out his life in great depth but always kept something back. He is to a degree an enigma in today’s open and brash society, which is refreshing and dignified.”