Architect of dissent Richard MacCormac's many successes as an architect are founded on an attitude which questions conventional wisdom
For someone whose trappings of success include being a Commander of the British Empire, a Royal Academician, and Past President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Richard MacCormac has shown marked signs of dissent. He might have become a doctor - 'which both sides of my family had been for several generations' - but found, aged 17, that he was not terribly good at science. He rediscovered an interest in architecture that had manifested itself several years earlier in a fascination with 'models and children's structural kits'. His education, he says, 'was more to do with self-education'; these extramural activities 'gave me the confidence that I didn't have as a teenager', and, perhaps, prefigured his approach to architecture. 'Making very complete things at a very small scale enables you to dominate a very big problem.'
Despite the teaching of Colin Rowe and Sandy Wilson, MacCormac's dissatisfaction with the outward conventions of education continued at Cambridge. He left after three years, along with several contemporaries. Alex Reid, 'fed up with architecture', went to fly helicopters; MacCormac, with Peter Jamieson and Peter Carolin, only fled as far as the Bartlett. It was the era of Llewelyn-Davies. 'I got no inspiration from him,' says MacCormac, but he did find Robert Maxwell an antidote to the curriculum, which included technology, management, sociology and 'a big void where architecture should have been'.
Whatever tribulations they faced, those dissidents have the last laugh. Reid, post-helicopters and bt, is riba director-general; Carolin, after a stint as editor of the aj, is professor of architecture at Cambridge, and Jamieson has been in partnership with MacCormac since 1972. David Prichard joined the following year.
Rowe might already have been so 'fatigued with all that rustication [in London]' that he had to spend most of his time in the us or Italy, but he was around enough to help MacCormac to fill the void. Even Rowe, however, could not free MacCormac entirely from the ethos of 'The Architect and his Office' study, the Fabian pamphlet 'Architecture, Art or Social Service?', and '60 per cent of architects in local authority employment'. After periods at Lyons Israel and Ellis, and Powell and Moya, where he learned that 'the concept comes through if detail gives it rhetoric', MacCormac, with David Lea and Peter Bell - a Harkness Scholarship prevented Frank Duffy from joining them - talked his way into the London Borough of Merton. They worked on large housing schemes which eschewed the gallery-access slab-block type for low rise and individual expression. 'It still looks like local-authority housing,' says MacCormac, but he believes it stands up well in comparison to contemporary projects. Bell and MacCormac subequently went into partnership, designing a house in Blackheath 'where the client still lives, and it still leaks . . . '
Initially, MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard worked on housing schemes. But 'when Mrs Thatcher came to power, it was clear that there was going to be little public housing'. They were lucky, says MacCormac, to get on the shortlist for a competition for Bristol University Arts Faculty. Having won it, they were put forward for their seminal Sainsbury building for Worcester College Oxford. There followed the string of Oxbridge buildings which established their reputation and which MacCormac enjoyed - 'the clients are real patrons' - except for the disappointment of not building the King's College Cambridge library, killed off by the '87 stock market crash.
After another disappointment over Tonbridge College Chapel, he had to wait for the Ruskin library at Lancaster University to build a large-volume space. It demonstrates several strands of their work: the idea of a building within a building, and the double idea of narrative as a sequence of spatial experiences in time, with the possibilities of metaphorical readings as it stands for a church, a cabinet, a reliquary, even, playing the Ruskin connection, St Mark's in Venice. It is apocryphal in the office, MacCormac confesses, that he has to draw to try to establish what the building is before he looks at the brief. But this allows him to establish the small compositional and often allegorical device to control the big idea.
MacCormac became riba president during the recession, 'the only time I could do something like that'. Further political ambition would depend on there being 'something worth doing', although he outlines that he would like to see the ra become 'more academic', extending the Academy Forum to take in fine art alongside architecture, and for the school to include specialist architecture courses. After Ruskin, and with projects like the Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum - also a large volume with a object suspended in it 'which might owe something to Ron Herron's walking city', and certainly has a debt to Tom Markus's analysis of thetheatre of memory and spatialisation of knowledge - he is enjoying practice.