Obituary: Michael John Mannings, architect and civil servant, who hobnobbed with Margaret Thatcher and the Queen
Mike Mannings was a man who epitomised the “larger than life” idiom – passionate, eccentric and a huge presence.
A gentle giant, big in stature and in heart, he made an impression wherever he chose to get involved, whether that was in the public realm through his architectural expertise and service to the community or in his many interests from his love of Formula One to sailing.
As an assistant director at the Property Services Agency Scottish HQ, he cast an architect’s critical eye over numerous significant projects, including the new sheriff courthouse of Glasgow and Strathkelvin, the renovation of Fort George and the conversion of John Watson’s School into a new home for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
He also oversaw and designed secret facilities for military installations and nuclear air raid shelters. His work regularly brought him into the sphere of Prime Ministers and the Royal family but, despite moving in such elevated circles, satisfaction came from the simpler aspects of life – his house, garden and his family – the latter often only learning details of his meetings with the Queen or Margaret Thatcher much later after the event, when he dropped an anecdote of such occasions into casual conversation.
Born in Tunbridge Wells, where he was educated at Skinners’ School, as a young man he worked for Sadler’s Wells Opera company. Later he went on the study architecture in south London, doing his thesis on theatre architecture.
His national service as a gunnery sergeant dispelled any notions he might have had of a career in the Army when he refused to carry out an order: having been asked to fire a gun at a tank on a shooting range surrounded by sheep, he defied his superior, citing the presence of the farm animals. Repeated requests to comply were met with the same refusal. However he did suggest that if his superior wished to stand on the tank he would be happy to oblige – an apt illustration of a man who did not always conform but did what he believed was right.
Though serving King and country had not proved his forte, in civvy street he was involved in preparations for The Queen’s coronation, making models of the route through London.
His career then took him to Leeds before his move to Edinburgh where he was extremely proud of his work on the King of Sweden’s state visit to the city in 1975. A civil servant through and through, he enjoyed creating, viewing and experiencing large public buildings and was expert at getting things done and functioning at full capacity.
Never afraid to speak his mind, his love of a good argument made him stimulating company, particularly at a discussion group on issues affecting the built environment convened by Edinburgh University’s planning guru Professor Percy Johnson Marshall. At Newcastle University, where he taught architecture, his expertise was recognised with an honorary doctorate.
Testimony to his determination was his successful defence of the formerly dilapidated Benmore Courtyard in Argyll. He opposed a plan to demolish it and today it is a gallery of the Botanic Garden there.
While working in London he had been a member of the Civil Service Fishing Club. After arriving in Edinburgh he joined the Royal Forth Yacht Club, buying a wooden boat, Kingfisher of Rhu, which he sailed around the islands in the Forth.
He had considered learning to fly, having flown gliders in his youth, but as a lifelong enthusiast for swimming and the sea, he opted for a watersport. At 40 he learned to scuba dive and ended up teaching and running the Edinburgh Sub-Aqua club for a time.
When he retired in 1984 he gave up these hobbies and turned his attention to the local community. A long-standing member of the Labour party, he was active for many years on Morningside Community Council and involved in the Craiglockhart Nature Trail.
A popular figure in the area, where he was often to be seen sporting a bow tie, he organised an annual street bonfire in Morningside’s Nile Grove, once prompting a mini stampede when the unexpected ignition of his stock of fireworks sent the gathering running for cover. It was the only mishap in an event that became a well-loved neighbourhood staple and fortunately resulted in no harm.
An accomplished pianist, he enjoyed playing duets with a friend and performing long pieces from memory, and was passionate about Formula One, so much so that he would time the adverts and write to the television company to complain if they interrupted the racing for too long.
He is survived by his third wife Val, sons from his second marriage, Thomas and Paul, and extended family.