He was one of a generation of architects who trained straight after the war. He graduated from what was then North London Polytechnic but, dismayed at what developers were doing to town centres, he joined the then overseas Ministry of Works, which sent him to Malaya. After a few years he joined the private practice Booty Edwards and Partners. By the time he was 40 he had built two or three banks, a hospital, half a dozen factories and Kuala Lumpur's first international airport. Even today's most successful architect could not possibly have achieved that.
At North London he studied Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe – a good start for designing buildings on virgin territory in tropical climates. Few students leaving university today get the chance to design a new building for years, if ever. To be given a chance to put all that Corbusian detailing into practice while you're still fizzing with enthusiasm is unheard of.
I recall a photograph of the Standard Chartered Bank's headquarters in Brunei. It featured a ribbed concrete rainwater spout 3 m tall and 0.5 m thick jutting out spectacularly four storeys up. But how could you get a feature like that past today's value engineers? Or planners? Or cost consultants? Or almost anyone with a say-so in what used to be an arrangement between an architect and a client?
For architects, there was plenty of money to be made, particularly if you were running the only half-decent design firm in a growing town. And in the late 1950s the practice was asked to design the Sultan of Brunei's residence in Kalantan. After six months the Sultan at last approved the plans.
"How long is my house going to take to build?"
"Oh, we can probably get it on site in about three or four months and it will take about seven or eight months after that," said my father-in-law.
It was a wonderful time to be an architect,’ my father-in-law said, ‘but the RIBA threw it all away
A dark frown clouded the imperial brow. "I'm afraid that is quite impossible. I am paying an official visit in 12 weeks and I have absolutely nowhere to stay." There was a terrible fee-shredding pause.
"Well," said my father–in-law, "it might be possible, but we'd have to have absolute carte blanche."
"How do you mean?" asked the Sultan, brightening.
"We'd have to start immediately. Everything will have to be specially made locally. There is no time to seek approvals in advance, or to go to tender. We'll have to do the detailed design work as we go and the builder will have to work round the clock."
The Sultan regained some of his former composure. "You could start today?"
"We can start after this meeting. But if I am to have his house ready in 11 weeks, I cannot give his Highness even the remotest idea of what it will cost."
Long pause. "Mr Merer," sighed the Sultan, "I am not in the slightest degree concerned about the cost. I have only one problem: we have nowhere to stay." The Sultan nodded to his factotum, who produced a gold Parker 51 fountain pen and an armful of cheques. "I shall leave everything up to you. Please do whatever is necessary to see that my house is ready for me on 14 December. Thank you."
By 8 o'clock that evening they had set up the generators and had 300 people clearing the site and making the form work for the concrete. All the joinery, furniture, light fittings, ironmongery, fabrics, tiles and ceramics had to be purpose-made. And practically the only metal available was aluminium. But they completed a week early, after which the practice was commissioned for the mosque in Brunei.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.