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WHITE, Leonard William Thornton

Born: 1901 06 16
Died: 1965 10 25


Reg No: 678
Year: 1937

List of projects:

Also referred to as THORNTON-WHITE, Leonard William.

Was appointed the first professor of Architecture at the University of Cape Town in 1936 or 1937. He was born in Uppingham in Rutland, England and educated at Uppingham School in Rutland where his father was teaching. In 1916 his father's ill-health and death in 1917 precipitated TW (as he was later known) into his training as an architect. From 1916 he was articled to Dr John Bilson, FRIBA, FSA, FSI in Hull where he remained until 1920. He was then successively assistant to Har (?) & Andrew, Blackmore Sykes & Co and Dr Bilson, all of Hull, between 1920 and 1927. It was Bilson who seems to have had the most formative influence on TW's approach to his profession: 'the standard of my master, who I learned to respect highly, was inhumanely high ... made a big impression on me' (Cape Times 12.2.1939). TW was placed first in the intermediate examinations for the RIBA and first in the Empire in his final RIBA examination (n.d.); he commenced practice in 1927 in Hull, designing several houses in Hull and at Hessle and Kirkella in Yorkshire. Later in 1927 he left to work in London where he was responsible for the design of several houses in Hampstead, Putney, Chelsea and Gidea Park and for the reconstruction of a fourteenth century cottage at Lavenham in Suffolk. For two years (1927-1928) he studied as a postgraduate student at the Bartlett School of Architecture at London University and was awarded the Soane Medallion and Rome Bursary as a Henry Jarvis student in 1928. He married at about this time and studied in Europe from his base in Rome until 1930 when he returned to London. According to his account in the Cape Times (25 Feb 1939) he hit the slump on his return and looked around for something to do. He was advised to try for a lecturing post at the London Polytechnic School of Architecture, Surveying and Building. Having obtained the post he brought the unrecognised school up to recognition standards of the RIBA, embarking on his own practice in London at the same time. He carried out a variety of designs during these years including the RIBA stand at the Schoolboys' Exhibition (n.d.) and the RIBA stand at the Anti-Noise League Exhibition (n.d.) and was responsible for the decoration scheme for the final dance held at the RIBA Building at 9 Conduit St before the move to the Institute's new building in Portland Place. He also designed the sports pavilion at King's School, Canterbury, a hotel at Weybridge and various ghosting works. He contributed 'about 75,000 words a year to various professional papers: the RIBA and Architectural Association crits, review and weekly commentary, current Architectural Affairs' (FRIBA nom papers 1937). He was appointed vice-principal of the Architectural Association in London where he remained for four years 'with a steadily growing practice in Bedford Square' (Cape Times 25 Feb 1939) when he applied for the post of the chair in Architecture at the University of Cape Town in 1936. On Christmas Eve three months later he received a telegram from the High Commissioner offering him the job.

Thornton White arrived in Cape Town to take up his chair in 1937. It was a post for which there had been some competition, from Rex MARTIENSSEN among others. His inaugural address was published in the South African Architectural Record in June 1937 (267-75) and, as HERBERT remarks (1975:178) his 'attitude was essentially straightforward, reasonable, sensible. It was not inflammatory of students' hearts or minds, nor did it pander to the nostalgic prejudices of the traditionalists'. TW approached his task with enthusiasm. He proposed part-time classes for the benefit of students employed in architects' offices who were unable to take full-time courses, and a refresher course was projected for practising architects and their assistants. Both courses were no doubt proposed in response to enquiries. He was responsible for moulding the structure and spirit of the Cape Town School of Architecture, the second school of architecture to be founded in South Africa after that at the University of the Witwatersrand. TW made himself acquainted with South African architecture very soon after his arrival and the collection of photographs of modern buildings of the Transvaal, taken by him in about 1940 and now preserved among his papers in the University of Cape Town library, shows his selective and appreciative eye for the architecture of his time.

Many of these photographs have notes on the back and would probably have been used for teaching. He continued to practice, a necessity upheld by the RIBA to keep architects abreast of developments and avoid a degeneration into text-book teaching. A lover of good living and a keen teacher, he would assure his students that life was more important than architecture; his energy and enthusiasm was appreciated by several generations of architecture students. He frequently spoke out in the journals about educational matters in architecture and was particularly concerned with the lack of public awareness of urban environment. His interest in town planning, a topical concern, led to the foundation of the Town Planning course at the School of Architecture, at the University of Cape Town and before long (c1947) the School of Architecture was renamed the School of Architecture and Town Planning.

In 1947 he was invited to design a layout for Nairobi, Kenya. The plan was accepted and forms the basis of the current layout of Nairobi. It seems that VS REES-POOLE collaborated on this work. The British Government also requested Thornton White to act as Town Planner for Mombasa, Kenya, and for Port Louis, Mauritius. In South Africa he advised on the layout of the Cape Town Foreshore plan which was strongly criticised by the architect Francis LORNE at the time, and was concerned with a number of other projects.

Among the private works undertaken by TW were a house for the sculptor Ivan MITFORD-BARBERTON at Bantry Bay (c1939) and TW's own house, Green Valley in Constantia c1940. The latter was reviewed in the South African Architectural Record (Dec 1943:301-4) and was mentioned by Herbert (1975 229 ill) as a noteworthy modern building in Cape Town. Other buildings with which he was concerned in Cape Town were the Wool Board Building (1949?) and the Centlivres Building (1952?) for the University of Cape Town, intended to provide accommodation for the Faculties of Sociology and of Architecture.

Thornton White suffered from poor health from the early 1960s and retired from the School of Architecture early in 1965. He was appointed architectural consultant to the University by the University Council, but died in Cape Town after a period of severe illness late in 1965.

Thornton White assisted in establishing international recognition of the School of Architecture.

FRIBA 1937; ISAA 1937. (AB&E Mar 1938:2; A&B Nov 1965:28 obit; Dyzell 1984; Herbert 1975; FRIBA nom papers (1937) 3383; Pryce Lewis 1985; Rosenthal 1966:378; SAAR Sep 1937:421-25, article by RFR DAY; SAAR Mar 1966:35 obit; SAB Apr 1937:47; Thornton White Papers, UCT Libr BC 353 (1915-64).

Publ: Architectural training today in England and abroad, RIBA Jnl Jan(?)1934:299-302; Inaugural lecture, SAAR Jun 1937:267-75; An architectural discussion, SAAR Sep 1937:421-25; A survey of twentieth century town planning, SAAR Sep 1938:338 ill; Architectural education, SAAR Aug 1939:283-89; Discussion on Prof Thornton White's paper, SAAR Aug 1939:290-303.

All truncated references not cited and linked below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Books with reference to WHITE, Leonard William Thornton

Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8). London: International Architect. pp 60
HSRC. 1987. Dictionary of South African Biography Volume V. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council. pp 774-775
ISAA. 1959. The Yearbook of the Institute of South African Architects and Chapter of SA Quantity Surveyors 1958-1959 : Die Jaarboek van die Instituut van Suid-Afrikaanse Argitekte en Tak van Suid-Afrikaanse Bourekenaars 1958-1959. Johannesburg: ISAA. pp 101, 211

Chapters in books with reference to WHITE, Leonard William Thornton

Various. A Biographical history: in Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8): pp 60
Biermann, Barrie E. Thornton-White, Leonard William: in HSRC. 1987. Dictionary of South African Biography Volume V: pp 774-775

Chapters in books by WHITE, Leonard William Thornton

Thornton White, LW. Conclusion: in. 1968. The Preservation and restoration of historic buildings in South Africa: pp 83