INGRID Bergman and Robert Donat were about to go to China to film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), when the authorities suddenly withdrew permission and it fell to John Box, the film's relatively untried art director to find somewhere to stand in for the original locations.

He chose Wales and built a walled Chinese city in Snowdonia, populated the fields with peasants and had Japanese planes fly overhead.

"I just had a feeling that Wales and Chinese water colours had an affinity, " he told me years later when I interviewed him for the book On Location. The transformation was so amazing that the publisher used "before" and "after" shots on the cover.

Box acquired the reputation of someone who could perform miracles on location and he worked with David Lean on his masterpieces Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and DoctorZhivago (1965), turning Spanish summer into Russian winter on the latter.

Box, who has died of vascular disease at the age of 85, won four Oscars and three British Academy Awards for seven different films, and he remains one of British cinema's greatest designers.

Born John Allan Hyatt Box in Hampstead, London, in 1920, he spent much of his early life in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where his father was an engineer. When he was about 12, he returned to England, with his mother and brother. Shortly after their arrival, his mother died of a tropical disease.

He trained as an architect, but enlisted in the Royal Armoured Corps during the Second World War, served in France, was mentioned in dispatches and ended up as an acting colonel at the age of 25.

After the war, Box entered the film industry and worked as a draughtsman on such films as The Importance of Being Earnest and Disney's The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (both 1952).

In civilian life he retained the clipped moustache and conversational style of the military gent, though his thinking was by no means regimented.

He was promoted to art director on the Gregory Peck comedy The Million Pound Note (1953). The art director, more usually called production designer now, is the person responsible for the physical appearance of the world in which the drama takes place.

There had been a brief wartime marriage, and Box met his second wife, costume designer Doris Lee, on The Black Knight (1954), a medieval adventure with Alan Ladd. It shot in Spain and Wales, which were to become Box's regular haunts.

Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek objected to references in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness to "bound feet", the practice of breaking and binding girls' toes to give the distinctive, teetering walk Chinese men found attractive.

He wanted to project an image of his country as progressive and modern. Director Mark Robson responded by pointing out it was a true story, set in the past, and refused to make changes. It was stalemate and Box got to recreate China in Wales.

It was a big, prestigious movie anyway, but the way Box rose to the unexpected location challenge had Britain's leading directors beating a path to his door.

He recreated Cuba in Shepperton Studios for Carol Reed on Our Man in Havana (1959) and began his association with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and played a key role in devising Omar Sharif's opening scene when he rides out of a desert heat haze.

Initially, Box felt that the scene was bland. He ordered that the camel path to the well should be painted white and bordered with black pebbles to focus the viewer's eye on Sharif. Lean told him: "You'll never do a better bit of designing in films, ever, " and it became one of the most celebrated shots in cinema history.

On Doctor Zhivago, Spain doubled for Russia. Both the climate and the politics were more amenable to filming, though the film presented another huge challenge for Box, who whitewashed trees and covered the countryside in white plastic sheets and marble dust.

A scene of the Red Army charging across a frozen lake was filmed on sheet iron in a field, with thousands of tons of crushed white marble and a moored rowing boat to complete the illusion.

Winter invaded Zhivago's country house, too, and a wonderfully evocative set was coated in hot wax, which was then sprayed with cold water to solidify it, creating the effect of crisp frost that had audiences pulling their coats tight around them forwarmth. Zhivago won Box his second Oscar.

A third followed when he was reunited with Carol Reed on the musical Oliver! (1968).

"The workhouse of the opening sequence seems literally to spring to life from a realistic steel engraving, and John Box's splendidly designed sets - particularly of the dockside tavern and the twisting, rotted stairs that lead over a fetid canal to Fagin's hide-out - create a formalised Dickensian atmosphere, " wrote Jan Dawson in Monthly Film Bulletin.

Box won a fourth Oscar for Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and British Academy Awards for A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Great Gatsby (1974) and Rollerball (1975).

Many of his most notable films were period dramas.

Norman Jewison's Rollerball marked a move in the opposite direction, with James Caan as the star of a futuristic sport, an extremely violent mix of hockey, basketball and motocross. Box helped devise the game.

Other films include The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) , The World of Suzie Wong (1960), Of Human Bondage (1964), Travels with My Aunt (1972), The Keep (1983), Lean's A Passage to India (1984) and Black Beauty (1994).

His final film was First Knight (1995), with Sean Connery as King Arthur, and appropriately enough it saw Box back in Wales, which had played such an important part in his life. His wife died in 1992. He is survived by two daughters.

John Box, film production designer; born January 27, 1920, died March 7, 2005.