Basic Biographical Details

Name: Alister Gladstone MacDonald (or Alistair Gladstone MacDonald)
Designation: Architect
Born: 18 May 1898
Died: 1993
Bio Notes: Alister (or Alistair) Gladstone MacDonald, - sources differ as to the spelling of his first name - was born in London on 18 May 1898, the eldest of the six children of James Ramsey MacDonald, Britain’s first-ever Labour Prime Minister, and his wife Margaret Ethel Gladstone. Along with his brother Malcolm, he was educated at Bedales School in Hampshire following the death of their mother in 1911,when he was 13 years old. On leaving school in 1915 he declared his pacifist beliefs and in 1916 volunteered as an orderly with the Friends Ambulance Unit. For three years he worked on No 17 ambulance train in northern France transporting the wounded from the trenches back to the coast and thence to England. For much of his life he held an annual party for the “Seventeeners,” his comrades in the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Following the war, he enrolled at London University, where he was a Donaldson medallist at the Bartlett School of Architecture. He married Edith Katherine Hart in 1922, presenting Ramsey MacDonald with his first grand-daughters. To provide an income he worked on building sites including Frank Verity’s Plaza Cinema in London where he acted as clerk of works. It was during this period that he took his only interest in politics, promoting the Ramsay MacDonald government's policies on town planning, traffic and housing in an article published in the Architects' Journal. Alister's decision not to follow his family into politics in order to become an architect was a move not entirely understood by his father. Years later, when he was a highly successful architect with offices in both London and Edinburgh, Manny Shinwell wrote to him “You could have done work for the party.”

Alister MacDonald became a member of the RIBA in 1926 and was elected FRIBA in 1942. Shortly after commencing independent practice he opened an office at 14 Frederick Street, Edinburgh, possibly as a result of the commission for extensions to the McVitie and Price biscuit works in that city.

In January 1930 Alister MacDonald landed in Manhattan to begin a five-week inspection of US architecture. His visit, reported in Time magazine, attracted considerable interest in America, thanks to his dashing good looks and the fact that he was the eldest son of Britain's first Labour prime minister. Visits were planned to New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and then to Hollywood to study lighting and sound insulation on film sets. In what the Daily Mail later described as his “adventures in Hollywood” he was to meet many of the film stars of the era including Charlie Chaplin, whom he invited to Chequers to meet his father.

In the early 1930's he also travelled to Italy to study Mussolini's venture in draining the marshes around Rome for housing. There he met Mussolini and was invited to collaborate with Italian engineers in designing a skyscraper in the Piazza Diaz in Milan. Plans were prepared but the scheme never progressed as relations between Britain and Italy deteriorated.

He specialised in news theatres during the boom years of cinema- building in the 1930s. Among his designs in England were those at Victoria and Waterloo stations which used back projection and insulation against the noise of the trains. Sadly his plans for a news cinema in Glasgow's Central Station were unrealised but he built a number of conventional cinemas in Scotland, most notably for the Caledonian Associated Cinemas group (CAC), including the Playhouses in Peebles, the Broadway in Prestwick, and cinemas at Montrose and Elgin. He was also responsible for the Empire Cinema and Peace Pavilion for the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in 1938. His reputation and skills were clearly held in high regard – when the Architects Journal published a special number on Modern Cinemas in 1936, Macdonald was invited to contribute not only an example of his work on a conventional cinema (the Playhouse Montrose), but also an entire chapter on the complexities of designing newsreel cinemas.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he was one of the band of architects who decided that St Paul's Cathedral must be saved. With the encouragement of the Dean, the group set up a firefighting vigil, known as the St Paul's Watch, armed only with hassocks and buckets of water.

His interest in children led him to become honorary architect to among others the Nursery School Association, the Sunshine Homes for Blind Babies and Save the Children Fund and he was also involved in the post-war school building programme. Post war commissions included the Methodist churches at Amersham, Harlesden and High Wycombe, and the memorial wing of the Victory Ex-Services Club in Edgware Road. He also rebuilt the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts' Vanburgh Theatre and refurbished the Comedy Theatre (1955) in conjunction with Cecil Masey.

About 1960 the firm became Alister G MacDonald & Partners and at this period he travelled widely, with commissions in Yemen, Mombasa, Cyprus, Malta and in Jordan for his friend King Hussein. Two of his last executed projects were the building of the Churchill Memorial complex for the Sultan of Brunei, and the town centre redevelopment at St Austell, Cornwall.

Alister Gladstone MacDonald was married twice. In 1922 he married Edith Katherine Hart (two daughters); this marriage ended in divorce in 1936. In 1937 he married Doreen Banaz by whom he had two sons, Richard and Kelvin, and one daughter, Susan G R MacDonald, who was born in 1942. He was elected FRIAS in 1964.

He died at Brighton on 22 March 1993.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 103, Lincolns Inn Fields, London, EnglandPrivate18981916Home of his father, Ramsey MacDonald
Item 2 of 109, Howitt Road, Hampstead, London, EnglandPrivate1916After 1931A comfortable terraced house close to Belsize Park underground station purchased by Ramsey MacDonald.
Item 3 of 1014, Frederick Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusinessc. 1930c. 1936 
Item 4 of 109, Queen Anne's Gate, London, EnglandBusiness1932 *  
Item 5 of 10123, George Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness1939 *  
Item 6 of 107, Manor Place, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness(?)1939 or 1940 *  
Item 7 of 1014, John Street, Adelphi, London, EnglandBusiness1939 or 1940 *  
Item 8 of 10Melina Place, St John's Wood, London, EnglandPrivate1960 *  
Item 9 of 10Aldine House, 10-13, Bedford Street, London WC2, EnglandBusiness1960 As Alister MacDonald and Partners
Item 10 of 10Haveral Wood, Wadingburn, Midlothian, ScotlandPrivate1964 *  

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 1Alister G MacDonald & Partners1960   

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 2Leonard George Pargiter19321937AssistantIn charge of Edinburgh office
Item 2 of 2Alexander McDonald Heaton19531954Assistant Architect 


RIBA Proposals

This architect proposed the following individuals for RIBA membership (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate proposedNotes
Item 1 of 2Alexander McDonald Heaton4 December 1968For Fellowship
Item 2 of 2Leonard George Pargiter19 June 1951For Licentiateship

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 361924Miss Ishbel MacDonald’s “Wendy House”Lossiemouth MorayshireScotland 
Item 2 of 361931St Andrews Works for McVities, Guest & Co  EdinburghScotlandExtension to front block
Item 3 of 361932Edinburgh factory, workpeople's dining room  EdinburghScotland 
Item 4 of 361932Playhouse CinemaPeebles PeeblesshireScotland 
Item 5 of 361932Playhouse CinemaElgin MorayshireScotland 
Item 6 of 36July 1932Playhouse CinemaMontrose AngusScotlandReplaced Gordon& Scrymgeour as architect
Item 7 of 361933Mayfair CinemaWhitefield ManchesterEnglandCinema destroyed by fire 1941
Item 8 of 361933News Reel Theatre, Central Station  GlasgowScotlandProposed
Item 9 of 361933News Reel Theatre, Waverley Station  EdinburghScotlandProposed new reel cinema - not executed
Item 10 of 361933The Sphere New Theatre  LondonEngland 
Item 11 of 361933Victoria Station Newsreel Theatre  LondonEngland 
Item 12 of 361934Broadway CinemaPrestwick AyrshireScotland 
Item 13 of 361934Manchester News Theatre  ManchesterEnglandMacDonald scheme not built
Item 14 of 361934Waterloo Station Newsreel Cinema  LondonEngland 
Item 15 of 361935Princes Cinema  EdinburghScotlandReconstruction as Monseigneur News Theatre
Item 16 of 361935Toynbee Hall  LondonEngland 
Item 17 of 361935 or 1936(?)Kincorth Competition   ScotlandThird prize in competition - with John Patterson
Item 18 of 361936Barrage Balloon FactoryGodalming SurreyEngland 
Item 19 of 361936Business premises for J T Whitelaw's Trust  GlasgowScotlandInterior rebuilding
Item 20 of 361936Cameo News Theatre  LondonEngland 
Item 21 of 361936Lyceum cinema and theatreDumfries DumfriesshireScotlandRebuilding
Item 22 of 361937Cinema, St Clair Street and Park RoadKirkcaldy FifeScotland 
Item 23 of 361937Glasgow Empire Exhibition, Peace PavilionBellahouston GlasgowScotland 
Item 24 of 361937Palace CinemaBuckie BanffshireScotlandReconstruction
Item 25 of 361938Glasgow Empire Exhibition, Empire CinemaBellahouston GlasgowScotland 
Item 26 of 361939CinemaGrangemouth StirlingshireScotland 
Item 27 of 361950Victory Ex-Services Club  LondonEnglandExtension
Item 28 of 361953Royal Opera HouseVallettaMalta MaltaCompetition design
Item 29 of 361953State HospitalDoha DubaiUnited Arab EmiratesCompetition design - placed second - with Eric Maidment
Item 30 of 361954British Army Centre  DhekeliaCyprusNearly complete
Item 31 of 361954Vanburgh Theatre, RADA  LondonEngland 
Item 32 of 361960RAF Hospital Cape Zevgari AkrotiriCyprus 
Item 33 of 361961(?)“Westcott,” Martinsend LaneGreat Missenden BuckinghamshireEngland 
Item 34 of 361962Central Area RedevelopmentBridgend GlamorganWales 
Item 35 of 361964Mixed Use Development, Putney High StreetPutney LondonEngland 
Item 36 of 361966Hospital for the Sultan of Brunei   Brunei 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 2Gray, Richard1993The Cinemas of Alister MacDonald in 'Picture House', no 19, Winter 1993/4, pp30-4 
Item 2 of 2Post Office Directories     

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 6RIAS NewsletterJune 1993v4, no5  
Item 2 of 6The Independent27 March 1993  Obituary by Susan MacDonald
Item 3 of 6The Times11 April 1932   
Item 4 of 6The Times19 January 1937   
Item 5 of 6The Times3 March 1962   
Item 6 of 6The Times18 May 1993  This date was in DSA as 18 May 1893 but this must surely be an error for 18 May 1993 which might well have been his obituary.