‘This boy can see things’ Le Corbusier said of Peter Yates. ‘To see’ is an artist’s starting point; to translate that vision into both three dimensional space and two dimensional representation, into both buildings and paintings, was Yates’s life-long concern, both as architect and as painter.
Peter Yates (1920-1982) was born in Leytonstone, East London, to Frank Yates, manager of a marine chandlery and Frances Margaret (née Clarke). Yates attended Wanstead School where, showing an early engagement with painting, he created a mural entitled ‘Events at Sea’. After school he continued to pursue his interest in the arts, working as a commercial artist but also, foreshadowing his later occupation, as model and furniture maker, before studying what would become his main concern, architecture, at Regent Street Polytechnic (1938-41).
Yates joined the RAF (1941) and was stationed first in Wales and then in Ireland, before embarking for Versailles just outside of Paris (1944). In Paris Yates met a number of rising artists and writers – George Braque, Edouard Pignon, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach – but also Le Corbusier with whom Yates would form a life-long friendship. After his return to London Yates was recruited by another eminent architect, Berthold Lubetkin, who had been appointed architect-planner for Peterlee New Town. In Lubetkin’s offices Yates met Gordon Ryder who would become his future business partner.
Lubetkin had considerable influence on the young architects: ‘We learnt from Lubetkin that nothing is fixed’ Yates would later relate (*1). Lubetkin brought to his architecture a social vision: modern architecture, he maintained, ‘cried out for a new world’ wherein public buildings might be called upon to provide not only functionality, but delight and inspiration (*2). With these precepts the young architects felt less constrained by the need to adhere to traditional architectural styles and methods, and conversely, encouraged to adopt a modernist approach to architecture.
‘Ryder and Yates’ was formed in Newcastle Upon Tyne (1953), but initially the commitment to modernist values met with rejection from the more staid of planning committees. Yet commissions for private houses did arise. The most notable of these was for a house on Grand Parade, Tynemouth, for James Liddell, a wealthy builder. ‘Liddell House’ came to national notice when it was featured in the Daily Express, and it helped create commissions, both for more private houses, but also from Martin’s Bank who would ask the architects to refurbish branches in both Newcastle and Hexham (1962). ‘Liddell House’ is built in part with reinforced concrete – a material the practice increasingly used – and it is representative in style for its use of ribbon windows, as also for its murals. Yates’s skills as painter and artist were used by the Practice in each building type subsequently explored: in further private dwellings, in multi-occupancy houses, exhibition stands, and buildings for the commercial world.
Beacon House was one of the first multi-occupancy houses built by the Practice. It contained 44 flats overlooking the sea at Whitley Bay, and featured murals by Yates at its entrance. But it was also the first site to employ what Yates would term his ‘earth sculptures’: mounds of earth underpinned by concrete structure to produce a landscaped surround. A further multi-occupancy scheme followed. Built at North Kenton for Newcastle City Council this Estate consisted of eight house types clustered around an enclosed precinct, the whole designed so as to exclude vehicles from the residential areas. And here, too, the artistic influence of Yates is evident: the elevations contain a variety of materials, and as such, form various sized blocks of differentiated colours, patterns and textures – compositions akin in many ways to elements within an abstract painting.
The use of blocks, variously positioned, was an aesthetic device further explored in work the Practice undertook designing exhibition stands. In their stand for Carlite Plaster at Olympia (1957) Yates replaces blocks as used on elevations for geometric three-dimensional shapes: a cone, rhomboid and a square. These he positions atop and besides a rectilinear base to form an elegant and sculptural stand, one which also served to illustrate the capacities of plaster, the material produced by the Carlite company.
The Practice’s first large-scale project, Norgas House (1963-5) came from a commission by the Northern Gas Board for new headquarters and was built at Killingworth, just outside of Newcastle.
Ryder and Yates, by this time, had gained greater surety, innovatively employing a multidisciplinary team of structural, mechanical and electrical engineers to work alongside the design team. At Norgas House Yates’s strengths for clarity and boldness used in the design of exhibition stands comes to the fore. The brief was for a building which would hold its own amidst a bleak area of reclaimed land. This was achieved first through use of materials, water and glass with their reflective qualities, but also through the use of striking sculptural imagery – roof lights, for instance, in the form of Minoan horns, and a pyramid housing an outsized gas meter at the entrance to the site. And sculptural effects were also achieved at what is perhaps the Practice’s best known building, also at Killingworth, the Engineering Research Station (1965-8). Here huge roof-top ventilation flues and water storage tanks form striking sculptural statements, and at its base are earth sculptures, half mounds placed on either side of an elevated entrance bridge.
Yates’s skills as painter and artist were, therefore, used by the Practice in mural form, through the use of landscape structures and sculptural metaphors and statements, and in all of the building types explored – from their first private houses to their large-scale work at Killingworth. But Yates also worked privately as a painter. These works had always been known to his artist friends – to Victor Pasmore (see Artists) Austin Wright and Kenneth Rowntree – but only latterly did these paintings gain wider recognition with exhibitions at the Colbert Gallery, Durham (1975 and ’76); the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle (1982); RIBA (1985) and most recently Margaret Howell (2010). If a painterly influence can be found in Yates’s architectural work, his architectural work very much informs his paintings. As might be expected there is both graphic clarity and a strong sense of place; but likewise there are earth sculptures (‘Boscastle, Cornwall’, 1959) and geometric blocks and ‘roof sculptures’ (‘West Hartlepool From Durham’, c.1958). Buildings, of course, feature prominently in the paintings, but often the spaces between the buildings form compositional walkways and connecting geometry – evidence, in many ways, of Yates’s strengths as draughtsman. And just as in his architectural plans Yates used colour to good effect, in his paintings the use of colour is striking, with unexpected juxtapositions of complimentary yellows and purples (‘Boscastle, Cornwall’, 1959) or greens and reds (‘Great Britain’ 1953).
Yates died of cancer, November, 1982. He is survived by his second wife and by four of his children (one child having died before him). ’This boy can see things’ remarked Le Corbusier of Yates whilst he was still practicing. But after his death Lubetkin wrote:…‘to me it seemed more relevant that [he] could do things’ (*3). From seeing to doing, in both three and two dimensional space, Yates leaves a legacy not only of exceptional modernist buildings, but also of paintings, increasingly recognised in their own right as exceptional. His work is held in private collections worldwide – in Great Britain, Europe, New Zealand and the United States – and the Bookroom Art Press is delighted to be publishing a selection, available now for the first time, as numbered limited edition fine art prints.
(*1) Peter Yates: ‘Architects approach to Architecture’, Architects Journal, Vol. 167, no.46 (1975) p993. Also quoted in ‘Ryder and Yates’, Rutter Carroll (RIBA Publishing, 2009) p7.
(*2) Lubetkin re Finsbury Health Centre.
(*3) Lubetkin to Jolyon Yates, private correspondence (1985).