Faber's character and legacy
Oscar Faber died, aged 69, on 7th May 1956, after a heart attack. In his obituary in The Times two days later his friend Richard Denis Charques had this to say of his character:
"Nobody had more abundant life, nobody appeared to possess such inexhaustible energy. He was a prodigy of a man in his vitality, his zest for living, his capacity for work, his appetite for recreation. Big and heavy of frame, splendidly untidy in appearance, his eyes very blue and clear, bushy grey brows jutting out over flaming cheeks, he had always something of the air of a still untamed Viking. The distinction of the man was unmistakable. Character in him, as character often does, ran to eccentricity; he would confess his foibles and failings with a small boy's artful candour. With all his idiosyncrasies of behaviour he was a very lovable person."
Charques went on to say that:
"Oscar drove himself hard in his work; he had more than a little of the Carlylean religion of work. But he was also astonishingly versatile. He was a watercolour painter of unpretentious but real ability and painted enthusiastically on his travels. He adored Elgar and sang in a still attractive tenor voice. He gardened furiously. He played golf with erratic energy. An ex-Fabian Conservative, his mind was rational and extraordinarily lucid. He would pursue an argument in the quietest tone of voice, steadily lowering it as he warmed to his conclusions until he became almost inaudible. A schoolboy's sense of fun and adventure lurked always in him."
Like Aristotle (384-322 BC), Faber believed that "virtue lies between two extremes". He could be a patient teacher and yet a difficult man to live and work with.
Faber's legacy is predominantly two-fold. His pioneering development of reinforced concrete in the UK, amid extensive testing of his theories, was essential for Britain's development and distinction from European innovations and achievements. His skilled and ingenious understanding of the internal, electrical and mechanical necessities of cavernous political, religious and financial buildings was equally forward thinking.
He believed that every building should be aesthetic and full of character, as is the case with human beings. In his words "a cottage with an inadequate overhang gives an effect of meanness, like a man with a bowler hat from which the rim has become detached, whilst a building with an excessive overhang gives the impression of a person frowning".
However, Faber's control over Oscar Faber & Partners was such that he ran the company as if he was sole proprietor — as he had been from 1921 to 1948 — reacting to situations as they arose. According to his son John, he liked to have money resting in the firm's bank account rather than using it on projects. He would try to pay staff less than their real worth, which led to employees drifting away to other companies.
After Faber's death, the company continued successfully and developed his reputation for technical innovation and contribution to structural engineering. But, as John Faber noted in 1962, there "was no tangible basis for steering the firm's business affairs" and so John Faber produced the company's first long-term plan. In 1963 this strategy was adopted as a concurrent two, five and ten year programme that would be updated annually. The firm's first Annual Report appeared in 1964.
Jim Vaughan, the oldest partner, retired in 1961-2 and both Rob Kell and Bob Glover retired in 1967, though they remained as consultants for some years. The firm celebrated its Golden Anniversary in 1971, the same year that Faber Computer Operations Ltd was launched to take advantage of the growing interest in digital computing.
In an article entitled Fifty Years and Still Young in the November 1971 issue, Consulting Engineer said of the firm, "Now they have mastered the problem of generation succession they feel that with 50 years behind them they are poised and well prepared to face the more challenging years ahead".
British engineer Guy Maunsell's firm was founded in the year of Faber's death (1956), a fact that lends a degree of poignancy to the merging of both companies in October 2001, to form Faber Maunsell — part of international engineering giant AECOM, and from 2009 onwards the whole group has been known simply as AECOM. In many respects, Faber's wish for his own company to practice a multidisciplinary approach was realised even more successfully after his death.
Portrait courtesy AECOM