World War II (1939-45)
Oscar Faber's heyday began to turn just before the Second World War, when he was in his fifties, and uncharacteristically he began to lose his sense of direction. His marriage was not going well, and he was extremely concerned over the security of Britain and the possibility of German occupation. This led Faber to make a rash decision, which ultimately did not transpire — in spring 1939 he announced that he was going to move his family to America.
Faber wanted Jim Vaughan, and then later Rob Kell, to become official partners to secure the company's future in his absence. Vaughan, however, wanted various amendments to be made to the contract that was drawn up and in the end a lack of agreement caused Faber to withdraw the Partnership Deed.
By the outbreak of war, there were 45 staff members working at Romney House and Faber decided that the firm should move out of London for safety. Some staff moved to offices — apparently rather down-at-heel — set up in three houses in St Albans, while the rest moved to the former family home at Hayes Court in Kenley. Faber moved his family to a new house on an estate built by Costain in Kingswood, 10km away.
In 1940, Faber and his wife Joan moved to their last home, a house on Rothamsted Avenue in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. The offices at Hayes Court were shut up, and they later burned down during an air raid — unfortunately incinerating some of the firm's records.
During this period, Faber was becoming less reasonable, and increasingly uncompromising and irascible, perhaps burdened by his responsibilities for winning new work and living up to his established reputation. Not only did this behaviour impact upon others but also it caused him to suffer periods of loneliness.
When friends were too unnerved to comfort him, Faber turned to music — particularly music by Richard Wagner (1813-83) — for solace. His son John knew him to stand up in tears during performances, and to conduct the complex passages of Wagner's Ring Cycle privately at home with waving arms and "grunts of encouragement". He found kinship in Wagner's bold visions and self-belief and, according to John, named one of his early homes "Valhalla, hall of the valiant, house of the gods".
Poignantly, despite Faber's affinity with Wagner's ideas, the company dynamic deteriorated. The initially harmonious, like-minded and productive personal and professional relationships between Faber, Vaughan and Kell declined during the war years as the two younger engineers consolidated their expertise within the company and oversaw independent projects as well as managing Faber's schemes. Ironically, their increasing autonomy was partly nurtured by Faber growing more absorbed in his own projects and contacts, and making himself less available to his staff.
Vaughan and Kell contributed significantly to the firm's war effort, which included ordnance factories (Risley, Kirkby and Ruddington) and aircraft hangars (Windermere and Belfast). Nevertheless, in late 1944 Vaughan tendered his resignation. When Faber asked him why he wanted to leave, probably unwisely, Vaughan listed Faber's less attractive traits. To his credit, Faber persuaded Vaughan to stay on, though they tended to avoid one another thereafter.
Faber was involved personally in a number of major wartime projects, the most significant being the Mulberry Harbours (1943-4). Two of these temporary harbours were constructed in secrecy ready for the Normandy landings (6th June 1944), one for the American forces — Mulberry A — at Vierville sur Mer (later known as Omaha Beach) and one for British troops — Mulberry B — at Arromanches.
He played a key role in the realization of the project and met Winston Churchill in America to advise him on crucial aspects of the construction. Faber's input focused on the design of the reinforced concrete caissons
(codenamed Phoenix) that formed the harbour walls. These 60m long open-topped boxes were towed empty into the English Channel and scuttled to hide them, then pumped out, refloated and sunk into position just before D-Day.
Ironically perhaps, before this scheme was proposed Faber had seen the results of the German U-boat blockades (there were such campaigns in both World Wars, though the first one was more damaging) and envisaged a reinforced concrete floating island, moored in the Atlantic Ocean as a protective base for convoys of merchant shipping. His position and lack of influence then, however, delayed any chance he had to put his idea into practice. In 1943, with planning underway for the invasion of Northern France, his talent for designing reinforced concrete structures subject specifically to hydrodynamic effects was realized and (finally) appreciated.
Faber was elected President of the Institution of Heating & Ventilating Engineers (IHVE, part of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers from 1976 onwards) in 1944, and served for two terms. Kell would follow in his footsteps, becoming IHVE President for a single term in 1952.
Also in 1944 — a busy year — Faber was invited to submit proposals for the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and building services, and a little later the structural design, for the rebuilding of the House of Commons
. Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) designed the reconstruction after the original buildings were damaged in air raids in 1940, and then destroyed by bombing on 10-11th May 1941.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, obtaining a perfect balance between aesthetics and function was important to Faber. In April 1941 he wrote a paper entitled Aesthetic of Engineering Structures, for which he was awarded the Institution of Civil Engineer's Baker Gold Medal. In 1944 he presented one of a series of six lectures at the ICE, published under the title The Aesthetic Aspect of Civil Engineering Design, the title of each of the lectures.
In these works, Faber upholds the importance of aesthetics in engineering and remembers that when he was studying, the aesthetic reading of a building was not considered an important part of the course. He maintained that the public demands beauty in large prominent structures, and that more often than not, it's cathedrals and other ecclesiastical buildings that are associated with scale and beauty.
This association is a legacy from the Victorian approach to urban infrastructure, which often borrowed details from earlier styles such as Gothic and Renaissance, and was something that Faber reacted against, favouring instead more modern principles. He believed that practical structures should harmonize with their surroundings.
Portrait courtesy AECOM