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Tributes pour in for Isi Metzstein

Isi Metzstein has died, aged 83, after a long illness

Metzstein worked with Andy MacMillan at Gillespie Kidd & Coia, taught at the Glasgow School of Art and was responsible for St Peter’s Seminary near Glasgow and the Robinson College in Cambridge.

Born in Berlin in 1928, Metzstein’s family moved to Scotland when he was 11. At 18 he was hired by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and with MacMillan designed many Modernist churches, schools and colleges.

Isi was the conscience of the architectural profession in Scotland

Charlie Hussey, a director of Sutherland Hussey, described Metzstein’s death as a ‘huge loss’. Hussey added: ‘[He was] a man of immense intellect and creativity, a razor-sharp wit and above all a man of great warmth. Over the past twenty five years he has been my teacher, my colleague and my friend and I shall miss him very much.’

RIBA president Angela Brady said Metzstein would be remembered ‘fondly both as a great architect and educator who was known to be outspoken and had great courage and colour.’

She added: ‘Isi was part of the duo fondly known as ‘Andy and Isi’ who were awarded the RIBA Annie Spink award in 2008 for excellence in architectural education. On a personal level he was a huge influence on many students in Dublin during the “Flying Circus” years of 1976 -84. 

‘He was part of the group that changed the studio culture to create a free and easy exchange between student and tutors, moving away from a more controlled education. He will be sorely missed on both sides of the Irish Sea but his impact and stories will live on.’

Neil Gillespie of Reiach and Hall Architects described Metzstein as ‘the conscience of the architectural profession in Scotland to all those who engaged with him over a long and distinguished career of practice and teaching. ‘

He said: ‘We are now left without much critical foundation.

‘Like many architects of my generation probably my first and abiding taste of architecture and an awakening to a sense of material and light was on entering St Brides Church, East Kilbride and St Peters Seminary, Cardross.’

He added: ‘More recently I recall a building of ours, of which I was feeling a bit puffed up about, being reviewed by Isi (AJ 17.07.08). He surgically exposed the folly of our self indulgence. Isi and I then spent an evening together, me drowning my sorrows and Isi opening up a conversation that I have yet to fully rise to. It was a privilege to have known him.’

Colin Harris, a director at Sutherland Hussey Architects, said: ‘Isi taught most of our practice at some point and in recent years we have been worthy of the odd visit to our Edinburgh office. He was a wonderful motivator who we looked up to but like being back as students we would nervously await his unyielding responses as we showed him our projects.

His work was rigorous and he demanded that of everyone he taught; there was simply nowhere to hide when you stood in front of him with your work on the wall.’

His contribution to our profession is massive and the influence he had on us will last for many years

He added: ‘Last year we presented our project for Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop to a judging panel, which included Isi, for the £3 million Edinburgh Arts prize. By the end of our 15 minute presentation Isi had redesigned our scheme for us but gave us a bit of time to get it right. Just this morning I was sitting in a meeting still trying to sort out one of the details he wasn’t happy about. His contribution to our profession is massive and the influence he had on us will last for many years.’

Sandy and Clare Wright of Wright and Wright said: ‘Isi Metzstein was an outstanding architect and teacher, who was very deeply loved for his warmth and engagement expressed through a veil of black dog cynicism. His exceptional intellectual and ethical rigour was never self serving, in fact quite often the reverse. He was adored by those he taught because he engaged and motivated people, of all ages and abilities.

‘We were lucky that, in his words, he was a Glaswegian adoptee. He enriched our lives and work and has left a lasting legacy of heavyweight thick skinned devotees, building all over the world. Thank you Isi.’  

Alan Dunlop of Alan Dunlop Architects, said: ‘Isi was the greatest architect, thinker and educator in the UK. He could be difficult, but his knowledge of architecture was without match.

‘His projects were an inspiration to all of us and the profession is much less as a consequence of his passing.’

Glasgow School of Art director,professor Seona Reid, said: ‘Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s work under the visionary leadership of Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, former Head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture, represents one of the most significant and influential contributions to post war British architecture.

‘It is not, however, just through the remarkable physical legacy that Isi’s reputation will live on, but through the generations of architectural students whom he inspired. Isi Metzstein was a great architect, a remarkable teacher, and above all a very special person who will be greatly missed.’

In 2008 MacMillan and Metzstein accepted the Annie Spink award for outstanding contribution to architectural education (see AJ 05.12.08).

Penny Lewis of Scott Sutherland School, Aberdeen
‘Isi Metzstein didn’t write very often but when he did the text was very precise. I think he was disappointed that his provocative AJ review (July 2008) of Reiach and Hall’s Beatson building did not inspire a wider debate about what he described as the “disturbing superficiality of current architecture.” The text was also a polemic against architectural publications (one of which I edited) which he said favoured ‘operational and social reviews’ of buildings as opposed to ‘architectectonic’ ones. A fitting tribute might be for practices, publications and architecture schools to take the time to consider his critique. 

He wrote:”Essentially, all buildings are parcels of single or closely-packed, multi-cell volumes of varied plan and sectional ordering. The wrapping, with the possibility of local variations in stiffness, thickness transparency colour and texture has an intense capability of artistic and functional orchestration, and thus an opportunity for combining artistic self expression and public pleasure.

‘Recent and current practice is heavily into two types of packaging – a loose bubble or a tight stretch-wrap. While each is very different in form, their generality, and the priority given to technical performance, paradoxically manage to disassociate the façade from internal and external obligations. The highly seductive stretch-wrapping technique deprives architecture of much cultural and historic richness.”

Isi Metzstein was adored by so many because of his talent, his insight, his wit, his commitment to public life but most of all his refusal to be pragmatic, which in our current culture is a very rare quality.

Readers' comments (9)

  • Some personal memories of Isi.

    I first met Isi Metzstein as most do; in a crit. His crits were legendry. He took no prisoners but all the students adored him for it all the more. His analytical powers were razor fast; he could spot the essential weaknesses of a scheme in a few seconds. Later when he hired me as a junior lecturer at Edinburgh University I quickly became his lieutenant. It was a second education for me, the cold douche of the Metzstein discourse that introduced me to the idea that architecture, as he used to argue himself, was an intellectual activity. Buildings have, or should have, their own logic which is why so much current gesture architecture left him cold or bewildered. Later we taught together at Syracuse University and during leisurely breakfasts in the campus diner he began to open up to me the private side of his life and in particular his memories of life in Germany and his evacuation, a subject he rarely wished to discuss. But he always wanted to put the record straight, to counter any myth-making.

    After setting up my own practice we invited him in on a regular basis with some trepidation for crits on our own work. Timing was everything. If the project wasn’t started he might just design it for you; if it was too far advanced he would point out the faults all the same but which you knew were too late to correct. There were moments, such as when he said in a really loud voice “Muff (his nickname for me), this is the worst building you’ve ever designed” so that everyone in the office could hear! (It never got built). But his influence on me has been massive. Indeed subliminally I find myself standing back, looking at a plan or a section and thinking “what would Isi think?”

    Every Christmas he and Dany played Santa at our Christmas dinner and he came on a number of trips with us to Verona, Eichstatt, Dublin, etc. Despite increasing immobility he was always the last to bed, and over a Macallan or two discussion became passionate over what we had seen that day. It was just so much fun to have him with us and deepen our insights.

    While many of his buildings have been treated shamefully, a retrospective exhibition at the Lighthouse and the book by Jonny Roger won his approval. Indeed the exhibition in Glasgow coincided with another on Spence held simultaneously in Edinburgh. In the same period Spence who of course had moved to London had built ten times the number of buildings and yet visiting the two exhibitions by these two giant of Scottish architecture I was left in no doubt as to who was the more original, the more daring and the more profound.

    His witticisms are many and legendary. After he broke his leg a couple of years ago I went across to Glasgow a few times during a slow recovery. On one occasion he had graduated to a zimmer frame. Dany showed me into the living room. Then the door opened. Slowly in came zimmer followed by Isi and with a look of thunder on his face and in a low slow voice said , “Yes…..half man….half shopping trolley!”

    Such wonderful memories and such an impossible void to fill. I and many others will miss him terribly.

    Richard Murphy

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  • chris Dyson

    A great teacher I have very fond memories of his crits in particular my own Thesis design for a world university in istanbul. he was alwasy open to suspending disbelieve, as he put it, allowing free thinking yet worldly wise in his criticism. Both he and Andy macmillan were a powerful duo.

    It is my hope that something good comes of cardross in his memory it is a seminal project. we shall miss his insight and intellect.

    Chris Dyson Architect of Chris Dyson Architects London

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  • Marcel Ridyard

    Isi was a great architectural mind. I had the privilege of his tutorship together with Andy Macmillan during their time at the Macintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow. Isi's insightful criticism and logical thought has stood with me and fellow students for years as practicing Architects. He will be deeply missed in the world of design.

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  • I met Isi on my Junior Year Abroad program at the "Mac" in 1983-4. He was quite a presence. He would rip up your design during crits and really tell you he wanted to help you. We all believed he did want to help us. Our poor designs just needed to be improved in order for this to happen. Having a thin skin would not do any good in this situation. One had to be humble and open to his tutorials. After class we would all go to the pub and somehow a role of trace would appear on the table. Isi would rehash our schemes at the table with more ideas. The sketches we had when we left the pub, were prized with their drawings and beer stains. We would hang them on the walls in the studio as our inspiration to move forward with our projects. On a personal note, he invited me to his home for brunch and to meet his family. He made sure I always had a "Glasgow family."

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  • A few more rambling memories:

    Isi also taught a generation of architects at Edinburgh University from 1984-1991. I chose to study at Edinburgh in 1985 purely for Isi, and I had the last tutorial he gave there in the summer of 1991 at the end of his 6-year professorship.

    One of the few times I rendered him speechless was when he realised he had given me glandular fever in my penultimate diploma term. He admitted to carrying it in from his daughter Ruth. The upside to this was his insistence that he should conduct home tutorials from beside my sick bed to ensure I didn’t fall behind. I was able to extend my diploma through the summer to catch up and he would come to the studio every day. We designed my diploma together in what was for me a remarkable, iterative, discursive sharing of ideas that I have never experienced since. Not only would he regularly suspend his disbelief but, in his words, he would leave it “dangling perilously by a tiny thread”, until such point I would make a more reasonable suggestion.

    With his daughter as chaperone, Isi took me with a dozen students on a field trip to Berlin in the spring of 1990. We followed him tirelessly from one architectural site to another, appreciating new and old alike and learning to discern between the merely fashionable and the authentic. He avoided nostalgia and would not visit the streets in East Berlin where he grew up. I believe he did so on subsequent trips. The group of Berlin students he introduced me to became my good friends when I moved there a year later on his good advice. He regularly visited me in Berlin to make sure I was still pursuing healthy architectural ideas, and he always relished the opportunity to give a crit in the office.

    Even now as I try to compose myself, I hear his guttural advice suggesting that you should never mix “The Macallan” with pitiful tears. I’ll have another though and keep hold of lots more wonderful memories.

    Thank you Isi. I’ll miss you.

    Richard Owers

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  • If their is a God, he'd better have his wits about him now.

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  • The crit
    …was his stage
    Isi, slumped hurumphing in his chair at the front – eyes darting distractedly across the wall of inadequate material in front of him – ‘when are we going to get this show on the chrode’.
    Tired red-eyed students lining up to have their work stripped of its whimsy.
    Eager ranks of staff and other students – anticipating a spectacular road crash
    And thankful it’s not their turn - this time.
    Then
    Like a great medical practitioner from another age
    Your drawings were passed through his MRI’s
    And your cringing justifications dismissed ‘reedichol’ss’
    He’d spot the cancer in the plan or section
    - then play with it – unpicking, dissecting, reducing.
    The project now in pieces, strewn across the floor – panic would set in…
    At this point – Isi would split in two
    Isi 1 gripping a problem with the scheme by the throat – while asking it a question
    Isi 2 dancing, teasing, re-mixing the parts
    Conjuring deftly
    If you could keep up, you left with a nugget
    No fools gold here.

    With great memories of a magical teacher
    Roddy Langmuir

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  • Appreciation of Isi Metzstein

    While Isi was Professor of Architecture at Edinburgh I was his visiting professor; part of a double act with him, admirer of his profound perception, phenomenal honesty and frightening forthrightness. I can truthfully say that I loved him, as his close family so clearly did, and others too.

    I discovered great things from being with him, so I miss him accordingly. I am truly grateful to him for being him, he's in me forever.

    Ted Cullinan

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  • "Born in Berlin in 1928, Metzstein’s family moved to Scotland when he was 11"
    Today, in Israel, is Holocaust Remeberence Day. I was ready this wonderful article yesterday about the great, inspirational architect Isi Metzstein. I can't help wondering though if anyone really knew this man. He was born in berlin in 1928, and moved to Scotland in 1939 - he was 11 years old, he and his family had most likely endured persecution at the hands of the Nazi's from 1933, when he was 5 yrs old, until they escaped (they didn't just move) at the outbreak of war. How did they manage to get to Scotland, was he lucky enough to escape with his family, did they send him alone on one of the kindertransports, and who else in his family survived? I would be very interested to know what shaped this man, who managed to achieve so much. I can't help thinking, today of all days, of that poor 11 year old boy - did he just 'move house' like you or I, or did he survive, and carry the scars of the murderous nazi regime in which he grew up, with him for life? can anyone shed light on his early years and family?

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