The Garden Guide

Lancaster, Michael

Born - Died : ? - 2004

English landscape architect, architect and author. Co-editor, with Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe and Patrick Goode of the Oxford Companion to Gardens. Michael Lancaster taught landscape architecture at the University of Greenwich.

Michael's parents were from Burnley in Lancashire, his father was a railway manager and his mother a pupil-teacher. She enjoyed painting and would never allow plastic in the house. The family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire and, at school there, an art master included an option in architecture.  He went on  his bike with a sketchbook, to see churches.   On leaving school, and knowing that he would be conscripted for National Service, Michael volunteered. He underwent 6 weeks basic training at Drymon,  near New Lanark, and loved the scenery.  This was followed by a time in Malvern. He put in for officer training but did not relish crossing a river on a rope and therefore was not selected, to his regret. He spent time with the Royal Engineers and learned about bailey bridges.

Michael then joined the Army Education Corps as a Learner Clerk C3. A posting to Egypt followed where, in Suez, he taught Physics and Chemistry. The building was on a traffic island. An opportunity to visit Upper Egypt arose and a love of  architecture set in landscape dated from this time.  National service complete, Michael’s father helped him to find a job in the  railways technical department then based in Bletchley Park. He worked  first in the engineering section and later in the architectural  section.  Michael was one of the first architects to use pre-stressed concrete.  After a few years he applied for and was offered a job with a private architectural practice in Watford. They give him day release to study for RIBA membership at the Hammersmith College of Arts and Crafts. He also took Peter Youngman's landscape course at University College London, with Frank Marshall and others. 

There was time for concerts in London. One night at the Albert  Hall he inadvertently took a girl's seat - and then her telephone  number. She came from Kassel and was working as an au pair in London. They listened to Brahms violin concerto and fell in love. After meetings in London she returned home and they corresponded for 5 years.  On Michael's salary of  £90/year there was little else they could do.  Then Renata's mother, who spoke some English and was very kind, invited Michael for Christmas in Germany.  He had started learning German on a building site c. 1950, finding it very interesting. Several of the workers were ex-Nazis, about which they were subdued but unrepentant. When he visited his future in-laws house in Kassel, the family was living on the first floor, which they entered directly by means of 3 metre piles of rubble.  

When Michael found a job with a flat, in a Bath architect’s office, he and Renata were married. The work of the office was rather traditional but Michael managed to design a mildly modernist shop still recognizable c2000. Then he saw an advertisement for a job in London with Max Fry and Jane  Drew. It was an outgoing modernist firm with an international reputation. Michael was offered the job and became site architect for the University of  Ibadan in Nigeria. The design drawings were done in London but much was left to be  designed on site – including the furniture and the landscape work. It was a rich design experience. Living in Nigeria  led to a love of African art and a collection of masks.  On returning to London, Michael met Derek Lovejoy and found him to be a  'swashbuckling' generous optimist. 'I'll pay you double' he told  Michael and sent him as site landscape architect to Pakistan. This created  an opportunity for some brilliant landscape work. Returning to England Michael became involved with competitions. Lovejoys won the competition for Everton Park in Liverpool which was not built.  Then Michael saw an advertisement for a job leading the landscape course in  Cheltenham. Bodfan Gruffyd was advisor to the course and the Head of the School told him he liked to have 'colourful characters' teaching with him. Michael took the job but did not move his family from London. After some years he saw a job at Thames Polytechnic, very near his home in London. The courses developed under his leadership and Thames Polytechnic became the University of Greenwich.  Michael invited Geoffrey Jellicoe as a visiting critic and, with Susan Jellicoe and Patrick Goode, they edited the Oxford Companion to Gardens. 

Michael had a special interest in design with colour and campaigned for an informed use of colour in all areas of environmental design. His first book was Britain in View:  Colour and the Landscape (1984). His second book, New European Landscape (1995) took an overview of large-scale projects throughout the continent.  Colourscape (1996), focused more sharply on architecture and urban design. He lectured widely on colour in Italy, Sweden and the U.K., and drew up colour strategies for Ilfracombe (1987) Norwich (1990) and the Greenwich riverside (1995). He also designed colour schemes for industrial buildings, such as the Wimpey Hobbs plant (1995), near the Thames Barrier. He argued against the ‘splash of paint’ approach to colour and criticized being Allsop’s Peckham Library as an instance of this approach. Michael’s Colour Guidelines (in the appendices to his books on colour) are a lasting contribution to the subject, for architects, landscape architects, and urban designers. 

Michael’s design instinct, and teaching, was decidedly modernist but widely informed by history. ‘Look at the mandala’ or ‘Examine a baroque church’ he would advise students wrestling with circles and squares. But ‘beware of circles’ was often his advice. His personality was friendly, encouraging and helpful.




Gardens designed by Lancaster, Michael