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the golden years

Maturity has brought David Mackay of Barcelona-based MBM Architectes fame and plaudits as his practice has found success on the international stage. He is talking about 'repairing cities' at the weekend's RIBA conference by neil baxter. photograph by guy

MBM Arquitectes' base is in the Placa Reial, off the Ramblas in the hear t of Barcelona, a location of some architectural refinement. But it is also one of the edgiest par ts of the Catalan capital, popular with tourists, but also frequented by beggars and petty thieves. Given David Mackay's philosophy of cities, the choice of location is somehow appropriate. He sees his task as an architect as creating the conditions whereby 'the undefined may take place within the defined'.

MBM will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Remarkably, barring mishap, its two founding par tners, Josep Mar torell and Oriol Bohigas, will come into work as usual that morning. Around 10 years their junior, Mackay himself is beyond average retirement age, yet his appearance and demeanour belie the fact and the impressive volume of work which the practice has generated in the past few years has established MBM as a leading force in European architecture.

Mackay explains that it was not until the death of Franco in 1975 that Catalonia regained its cultural identity and Barcelona began its renaissance. MBM had busied itself with private commissions and only with the city's revival did Mackay and his par tners begin to take on the large urban design exercises and building commissions for which they have achieved renown. With a cer tain irony, Mackay recalls advice received as a youthful architect from Sybil Moholy-Nagy: 'Don't try to be famous when you are young.' Whether by accident or design, it is advice to which he has adhered.

Mackay's life and career have been colourful, but pale by comparison with that of his late father. Originally from County Cork, Mackay senior was variously a gaucho in Argentina, a First World War air ace and, ironically, Eamon de Valera's only 'British' prisoner during the 1916 Easter uprising in Ireland. He went on to work for the British Colonial Service, spending more than 20 years on the Gold Coast. Meanwhile David, his mother (herself a product of London society, celebrated in a painting by Tissot in the Tate), and his two elder brothers stayed back in England.

Mackay's architectural education resulted from his father's insistence that he 'get a degree'.

What sor t of degree did not really matter but as Mackay's secondary school English teacher had helped engender a passion for historic architecture and an abiding interest in how buildings represent the economic, social and cultural circumstances of their time, Mackay decided architecture it should be. He failed to get into the Architecture Association 'on account of being too provincial', yet par t-time study at the Nor thern Polytechnic and work in various London offices provided a sound theoretical understanding and practical appreciation of the realities of the architect's task.

While he was a student, Mackay met and married his wife Roser, who had fled Barcelona to escape the oppression of Franco's regime. The couple's first child was born as David continued to balance his day-release studies with low-paid architectural work.

While Roser's architectural connections in Barcelona would eventually result in their settling in the city, it was a move she resisted. However, David prevailed upon her to give him one year.

Initially, his regime consisted of giving English lessons to an architect friend at 8am, then working in an architectural practice in the morning, giving English classes at a girls' school at noon, working in the afternoon for Mar torell and Bohigas and in the evening providing speaking classes to a group of Barcelona intellectuals.

One year drifted into a second, when he worked full time with Mar torell and Bohigas. In year three, 1962, Mar torell Bohigas Arquitectes became Mar torell, Bohigas, Mackay.

MBM is now, undoubtedly, among Spain's best known architectural practices. However, outside Barcelona, their only work in Spain was the Pavilion of the Future for Expo '92 in Seville.

Arguably its most impressive achievement is the Villa Olimpica, which, in addition to housing the athletes for the 1992 Olympic Games, transformed the seafront of Mackay's adopted city, providing new beaches, parkland, a marina, two signal office towers and a plethora of seafront bars and restaurants.

Much of the vehicular traffic which flows through the area was taken into tunnels to create a relaxed, urban-scaled residential community set close to the sea. Given that a high proportion of the cost of this was met by the sale of flats and commercial units, the area has been hailed as a masterpiece of urban design.

MBM is now truly an international practice. Its current workload includes a secondary school in east Berlin, 14 projects in Italy, 200 dwellings in Maastricht, and a major masterplanning exercise in Newham, east London. While design has always been a shared responsibility between the par tners, the liaison task is divided on the basis that Italian and South American work is dealt with by Bohigas, French and local by Mar torell and German, Dutch, British and Irish by Mackay. The division seems to work.

In recent years, concomitant with the growing success of the practice, David Mackay has received many plaudits, dedicated much energy to education, become something of a regular conference turn and served as an assessor in numerous architectural competitions. In 1996 John Prescott invited him to become a member of English Par tnership's Core Advisory Panel.

While maturity and success offer an opportunity to be somewhat selective, Mackay makes it clear that, while MBM may be prolific, each architectural task continues to be a challenge. This is partly because the practice insists on high-level involvement and real thinking time in all of its projects. Mackay's gentle philosophy sums up his current situation: 'As you get older, the exploration of the cultural implications of what you are designing becomes a greater and greater preoccupation. It's of huge benefit to the client, all extremely inefficient economically for us - but great fun!'

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