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BOOK

REVIEW

Rick Mather Architects By Robert Maxwell et al.Black Dog Publishing, 2006. 240pp. £29.95

Rick Mather is the best of the American architects who have chosen to practise in Britain.

He trained at the University of Oregon, where one of his undergraduate tutors happened to be Alvin Boyarsky (this was the period in which Boyarsky was building up a name as an innovative educator at schools across the USA). In 1963 Mather came over to London, where he proceeded to work for a variety of practices. He studied urban design at the Architectural Association, and taught part-time there and at the Polytechnic of Central London while establishing his own practice during the 1970s.

Mather soon gained a reputation for structural glass roofs and staircases which provided dramatic features for the conversion of private houses and restaurants. Very soon he was being asked to extend a number of smaller London museums in a similar fashion.

Boyarsky meanwhile had taken control at the AA and not only gave Mather a teaching post but employed him between 1978 and 1984 to refurbish the institution's premises - that fine pair of Georgian terraced houses in Bedford Square. Always popular among users was the new bar that Mather installed on the first floor. Like all his designs, the scheme for the AA was studiously cool and yet subtle enough to fit comfortably into the crumbling, idiosyncratic historic environment that surrounds us in Britain.

This latest book on Mather is a joy to read, equally for the sumptuous photographs and for the finely judged text by Robert Maxwell. Indeed, Maxwell can be seen as a sort of mirror-image of Mather in the sense that, from the mid-1960s, he went frequently to the USA to teach, and was later appointed dean at Princeton School of Architecture in the 1980s.

Maxwell's role in the transatlantic milieu that helped to spawn Mather, and his lifelong interest in the aesthetic dialogue between Modernism and architectural history, makes him an ideal commentator on Mather's work. He is also a devotee of Robert Venturi, and so sees no higher praise than in describing Mather as a quasi-mannerist in the way he plays around with the formal language of white-renderand-plate-glass Modernism.

This is very much an architect's book - lots of clear plans and sections and high-quality colour images, so you can find your way easily around each project. Most are well known and, looking back on them today, the highlights are the early Hoffmann House in Hampstead, which used for the first time laminated glass roof beams (engineered by Tim McFarlane) for a lean-to extension; the Priory House, also in Hampstead, with a dreamy swimming pool lying below its glass staircase; the glittering sequence of Zen restaurants across London; the low extension to the already-sublime Dulwich Picture Gallery; and the assorted additions to Lasdun's campus at the University of East Anglia.

In recent years, Mather's training in urban design has begun to pay off, with a number of masterplans for areas such as central Milton Keynes and the South Bank arts complex - the former scheme awaits a developer, while the latter has now been discarded. Currently, with a vast renovation project in process for the Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, Mather is 'on the verge of being recognised in the country of his birth', in Maxwell's words.

It is a fitting tribute to an architect who has worked with such consistency and modesty on these shores over the past four decades.

Murray Fraser is a professor at the University of Westminster

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