John Wells-Thorpe

Hove Town Hall, Architecture BrightonImage: Hove Town Hall, Brighton & Hove, architect John Wells-Thorpe

John Wells-Thorpe stands out for residents of Brighton & Hove as the designer of Hove Town Hall, his design for which was selected in 1974. Born in the city and a life-long resident, he studied architecture at the University of Brighton and went on to enjoy a career with many varied highlights.

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 has 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. 

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 has 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.

"Behind the Façade is a good and enjoyable read. It is in three stages: Youth and architectural practice. Public Life in Britain and in architectural politics and then his international life with the Commonwealth Association of Architects. Each part is written fluently and with revealing insights of professional life... His international travelling is recorded comparably in style and with the quality and perception of an established travel writer. As the end of his career approaches and working for the NHS one is aware of the wistfulness of someone who has tried hard in a public way to improve lives, enterprises and ambitions on a generous scale and realises there is not the time to make the impact he had sought. 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."