The day I heard that Charles had passed away, The Architects’ Journal asked if I would write his tribute; surprised and honoured, I agreed. That evening I settled at our dining room table and stared at my laptop, gazed heavenward and asked: “Charlie, why me? How on earth am I going to do this?” I saw him then, twinkling with laughter and his booming, jovial voice filled the room: “Ha!” My fingers began to tap tap tap … this tribute was published the next day, 24th March 2016.
Charles was not a big or tall man, but was otherwise substantial in every way.
I was introduced to Charles by Lee Mallett; I needed help with fundraising for an architecture charity. He listened carefully as he always did. Looked me straight in the eye and declared: “It will never work. Forget it. Are you a member of the Chelsea Arts Club? Well you should be!”
The Chelsea Arts Club was Charles’ spiritual home; it was here he would meet, laugh, work, play, confide and scheme. On the most crowded nights his laughter could be heard above the melee and you knew he was in fine fettle. Charles was always in fine fettle. Come rain or shine, ups or downs he prevailed with pragmatism and level headed logic. He was a great storyteller, a vivid raconteur and his narratives would soar, taking you on a delicious journey through anecdotes and flights of fancy captivating his audience, whether one person or five hundred.
Charles’ career is well documented; award-winning author and editor of more than a dozen books, curator, journalist, writer for the most prestigious architectural titles, columnist, architectural correspondent for The Times and Telegraph, consultant to Thames Television, Granada and Channel 4. He was for a time architectural advisor to HRH the Prince of Wales on whom he produced a cartoon biography entitled One’s Life, probably the only British subject with the chutzpah to countenance and complete such a thing. His talents and influence were diverse; his fundraising for Liverpool University and the RIBA Trust unrivaled in their success and breadth of engagement.
A phrase he coined of which he was especially proud was that of Community Architecture on which he co-wrote a book with Nick Wates. This tome arguably set the agenda for this genre of building design, which would perhaps otherwise have gone without any moniker at all. His legacy across every facet of his work endures and will influence long into the future.
I attended his hugely entertaining 60th birthday party in Gozo, Malta (blogs passim); he had recently completed a theatrical portrait of his architectural hero. Le Corbusier’s Women was a one-man show written and performed by Charles Knevitt. When he announced this ambitious plan, I don’t think anyone thought he was serious. But Charles never joked about his work. He didn’t just pull this one off, he wrote with verve and performed with aplomb keeping his audience, the cream of British architecture, gripped for some two hours. His play was a rich seam of fact, conjecture, vivacity and colour, reflecting it seemed the very essence of Charles, a clever, kind and astonishingly astute man, himself the embodiment of Le Corbusier’s ethos: a machine for living. For Charles loved life and lived it well.
Since I heard yesterday about Charles’ passing I have spoken to some who knew him. Respect and admiration for this most irrepressible of men is tangible. His influence on architecture and how it is perceived captured in a few words by Paul Monaghan: “A lovely guy, a great supporter and translator of bringing good architecture to the masses.”
Seizing the mantle, the wise people at the Chelsea Arts Club have created a fitting legacy for this man of people’s architecture: The Charles Knevitt Award for Study and Research in Architecture.
Socially, Charles was the life and soul be it a party, an intimate gathering or dinner for two. I shared many of the latter with him: hugely entertaining, rollicking evenings where he could be at once serious and a moment later bring tears of laughter to the table.
Charles was a solid friend, a rock in turbulent times, a wonderful accomplice in the challenging of authority and a gentleman through and through. An avid sender of articulate and charming notes, time spent with Charles was always acknowledged by a letter bearing his inimitable hand, inky words dancing across fine paper, an assurance that your time with him was cherished, woven forever into his personal story.
Like a conductor leading a fine orchestra, Charles ensured that his social life was one of variety, intellect, entertainment … and nieces. His companionship was widely appreciated by women whose company he thoroughly enjoyed and the younger of which he anointed as “nieces”; this meant no-one was quite certain of the nature of the relationship which suited him very well. Understandably, Charles was never short of female admirers and he liked it like that.
Charles was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. He accepted the inevitable prognosis with characteristic pragmatism. I saw him in Wales a month ago; he was his usual self and talked openly and calmly of his impending passing. He hinted that he had written his own obituary; rumour has it that he has also written a more subversive work about the undercurrents of his professional life over the years. If either is true, time will tell.
Charles attended a large family reunion in Northern Ireland; he thoroughly enjoyed himself and retired to bed happy. The following morning his sister woke him. He opened his eyes, smiled, and died.
How very Charles Knevitt; he knows that when you smile, the world smiles with you. All that remains then for his family, friends and colleagues is to think of Charles and smile.
10th August 1952 – 15 March 2016