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The quiet londoner


Rick Mather is rather vexed that the riba's on-line news service describes him as 'a Los Angeles architect'. Firstly, he was born and raised in Oregon. Secondly, he has lived and practised in London for more than 35 years - 'longer than I've lived anywhere else' - and no longer regards himself as a visitor. Finally, he's been a member of the riba Council for the last year. His name and reputation have not quite registered in Portland Place, it seems.

Mather has been characterised as 'the quiet American' on the British architectural scene. Born in 1937, he is of the generation of Foster and Rogers but, until recently, he has been better-known for his restaurants and domestic interiors than for new buildings or urban projects.

That image of Mather looks impossibly dated in the light of his three current museum projects (the National Maritime Museum's spectacular Neptune Court, recently completed, and ongoing revamps of the Wallace Collection and Dulwich Picture Gallery) and his appointment as master-planner to London's South Bank arts centre. The latter task is Mather's greatest challenge to date, but there is every hope that he will succeed where Farrell and Rogers, sadly, failed.

Though an outsider by birth, Rick Mather has become a true London architect. He arrived here in 1963 and spent a decade working firstly for Lyons Israel Ellis (chiefly on schools in Yorkshire) and then for Southwark Council, supplementing his income by teaching at the Bartlett, pcl and the aa. He set up his own practice in 1973, working initially from the 1830s Camden Town house he had bought and restored. Now 25 strong, it is currently based down the road in Camden High Street.

Terraced houses are as fundamental to Mather's view of London as riding the tube (he is a particular aficionado of the Northern Line). He discovered Rasmussen's London: The Unique City many years ago and embraced its author's passionate belief that architecture must relate to the life of the city. Although 'a Modern to the core', Mather argues that 'the life of the city must come first' - it was in their rejection of urban culture that Corbusier and his disciples went badly astray. The Georgian houses of Bloomsbury, which now house offices and academic departments, epitomise the durability and adaptability of traditional urban fabric. Mather's own stylish but practical revamp of the aa's premises in Bedford Square, begun in 1978, demonstrated the potential of the London house.

The aa project pointed the way to the series of Zen restaurants which became, for a time, Mather's best-known work. His association with the University of East Anglia was, however, to be far more significant in the long term. The two buildings he completed on the campus in 1984-85 led to his appointment in 1988 as master-planner to uea, charged with integrating Denys Lasdun's sublime terraces and pyramids into an architecturally heterogeneous future. The issues at uea - dealing with a 1960s megastructure based on the vertical division of vehicular and pedestrian circulation - prefigured those Mather was to address at the South Bank.

At the University of Southampton, where Mather was appointed master-planner in 1995, the issues were superficially different. The Southampton campus is a suburban sprawl, with no dominant theme (though it has significant 1960s buildings by Basil Spence). But there, as at uea, Mather was concerned to intensify the experience of the place, to create attractive public spaces and clear routes, reclaiming the ground level, in particular, and defining the edge of the site - Southampton University was so sunk in suburbia that it was possible to drive past the campus without being aware that it was there. Mather's eye-catching gateway building now makes it unmissable.

Rick Mather Architects is now well-established on the academic circuit. Nor is there any shortage of the sort of jobs which made Mather's name in the 80s. Chic restaurants like Avenue and Yoshino confirm that the practice hasn't lost its touch, while the Klein House in Hampstead was runner-up for the 1998 Stirling Prize. But there is no question which job is preoccupying Mather at the moment.

'Anything is possible at the South Bank,' Mather insists. 'What happens there depends on a consensus of support and we are currently consulting all the interested parties.' He makes no secret of his admiration for the best work of the 60s, but the buildings of that era on the South Bank, he says, 'simply don't work as they are. They need to be integrated into the city. The South Bank is a bleak, even hostile, place. It lacks real urbanity. You need more shops, places to eat and drink - everything that people like about London. Many local residents, for example, would like a supermarket - their views count as much as those of concert-goers.'

One surmises that, in Mather's hands, the widely admired Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall stand a good chance of surviving, but that they will get a radical overhaul, inside and out. As Mather points out, the new imax and Millennium Wheel, not to mention the Bankside Tate and Jubilee Line, will bring more and more people south of the river. The sbc site could accommodate institutions like the Architecture Foundation and Theatre Museum as well as the expanded bfi. 'There isn't an inevitable conflict between the integrity of the site and the intensification of use', he says. 'Cities are about intensity.'

Mather's career began with a couple of timber houses, sunk deep in the vast forests of Oregon. But it is in London that he has found a true home, a place where his blend of pragmatism and quiet conviction could produce spectacular results in the next century.

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