While his most famous projects were unfortunately never built, Norman Swann’s influence after three decades as a teacher is one of the important, hidden currents of contemporary British architecture.
Swann’s childhood was spent in South Kensington, London, in the grand apartment first purchased by his guano merchant grandfather Albert Swann. Norman was evacuated from London with his mother during the Blitz, and his infant experience of life on a Somerset farm remained a profound influence on him. In every other respect, though, he lived a childhood of upper-middle-class privilege.
He studied at Cambridge and the Architectural Association, where his graduation project was a housing system in concrete and polycarbonate that could be mass-produced by mobile ‘home factories’ on stilts. It was a time when it seemed possible that social emancipation could be achieved through architecture, and Swann embraced this mission, even as a young man.
After graduation in 1961, Swann was offered a job working at the Greater London Council’s Architects Department, then the largest and arguably most innovative architectural office in the world. However, his scepticism of the bureaucracy of the public sector prevented him accepting the position, and he founded his own practice instead. There were rumours at the time that personal differences between Swann and Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton were responsible for this surprising decision. Chalk and Crompton would go on to form Archigram and are among the most influential of 20th-century British architects. For Swann, the tension between his own identity as a designer and his commitment to new forms of collective living was a constant in his life thereafter.
Kenneth Bateman, critic and contemporary of Swann’s, has said: ‘Swann’s life mirrors so many of that era: idealistic, even Marxist leanings that could never be reconciled with his privileged background. He couldn’t stand to get his hands dirty like the Archigram chaps. Cambridge, too, was a kind of torture to him: surrounded by privilege that mirrored his own. He was a good designer, but politically naïve.’
Swann began teaching at Cambridge University architecture school in 1962, the year that Peter Eisenman submitted his PhD. Arriving in a department split by the controversy of Eisenman’s formalism, Swann came under the influence of Colin St John Wilson, who remained his friend and mentor until Wilson’s death in 2007.
Swann’s decades as a teacher influenced generations of architects, and his students remember him as a gruff, authoritative presence in the studio. In the 1970s, a growing interest in continental philosophy led him away from Brutalism and towards a freer, more organic formalism. His narrow failure to make the shortlist for the Grand Buildings competition on Trafalgar Square in 1985 was one of his greatest regrets. Swann’s proposal, for a monolithic columbarium and office building on the corner of Trafalgar Square, is considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. The competition was eventually won by a conventional reconstruction of the old, Edwardian façade, but Swann’s drawings remain iconic and widely published.
Swann’s collaborator on Grand Buildings was the youthful Daniel Norris who was then his year-out student. Norris went on to found Norris Form Workshop in the early 1990s and became the youngest ever winner of the Stirling Prize for the London house of Russian businessman and disgraced politician Anatoly Morozov.
In the 1990s, Swann’s office dwindled as commissions dried up, and he retired from practice and teaching to write. His long-anticipated book, The Individual and the Collective, is intended to be a synthesis of revolutionary politics and post structuralism, explored through the public spaces of Tuscan villages. Swann’s life has been dedicated to the politics of architecture. His refusal to pursue financial reward has meant relative hardship later in life, but as he ends his career he leaves behind an important legacy of a complex man with high ideals.