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Tributes pour in for Richard MacCormac

Tributes have poured in for the former RIBA President and founder of MJP Architects Richard MacCormac, who died aged 75 at the weekend

Stephen Hodder, RIBA president
‘Richard’s death is a great loss to architecture. ‘His inspirational work extended the humanist and crafted tradition of British architecture whether it be at the Cable and  Wireless Building, Fitzwilliam College Chapel, or the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster.

‘But for me it is his collegiate work in Oxford which is so memorable. The Bowra Building for Wadham College, Jowett’s Walk for Balliol, and the Garden and Kendrew Quadrangles for St John’s, all are beautifully made buildings rooted in their place and tradition. But it is the Sainsbury Building for Worcester College which stands out, with its rigorous and inventive plan; a building which is as much about the wonderful setting of the college as it is about the city it engages with.

MacCormac transcended the worlds of academia and practice

‘He was a remarkable, cerebral but accessible architect who transcended the worlds of academia and practice. However, when he came to see me earlier this year, still distressed from his BBC experience, I was reminded of his significant contribution to the RIBA as its president in the early 1990s. Richard instigated it’s journey towards a more outward facing institute, to promote architecture to a wider public; a journey that continues today.

‘He will be sorely missed by so many.’

Catherine Croft, director, Twentieth Century Society
‘Richard’s architecture, with its very detailed response to a closely examined brief, was seen as an exemplar of humane modernism, when I was a student at Cambridge. I remember visiting is building at Sainsbury Building at Worcester College Oxford, and being totally beguiled. But Richard’s work also encompassed good examples of much more prosaic building types, I’ve thought of him while shopping at Ludlow Tesco’s and passing through Southwark Jubilee Line station, both buildings where the experience of a mundane task is made far more pleasurable by intelligent design. 

‘I’m sure we will be campaigning for the listing of his buildings before long, they will stand the test of time.’

Ricky Burdett, Director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age Programme
‘Richard played an important role is designing the public spaces of the LSE’s unique urban campus in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He created the urban landscaping concept for  the public spaces, seating, steps and ramps around Houghton Street, Clare Market  and the John Watkins plaza in front of the Library and its outdoor café. MacCormac was a knowledgeable, meticulous and committed architect whose buildings for academic institutions across the UK are much admired by staff and students alike. He has left an important legacy to the LSE, contributing to its ‘urban’ ethos with well-designed public environment that makes the most of timeless materials. Both the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre and the design of new Centre for Global Sciences build on MacCormac’s concepts of accessible open space, with new buildings that are integrated into the heart of the city.

Richard was a great humanist and essential Londoner

‘Richard and Jocasta were close and irreplaceable friends. Meals and conversations lasted for hours over the years, often rambling, always stimulating. Richard was a great humanist and essential Londoner. His impersonations of East End gangsters still resonate in my ears, and his deep insights on urban culture have shaped me and many others who had the good fortune to spend happy hours with him. He leaves a gaping hole.’

Chris Dyson, founder of Chris Dyson Architects
‘I had the pleasure of working with Richard very closely over the last two years on the detail design and construction of his dining room, at the rear Heneage Street - his home for many years. I will never forget the lasting impression he made on me, his tenacity and dogged pursuit of the detail. He had a great capacity to defuse difficult situations and meetings by injecting humour and telling anecdotes.

‘He was a giant in terms of his architecture. An inspirational figure in many respects, who always ploughed his own furrow, with great energy and enthusiasm, which he did until very recently, with the beautiful publication of a book ‘Two houses in Spitalfields’ a story of the entwined lives and homes of his late partner Jocasta Innes of 30 years.

‘He will be sorely missed by the architectural profession and many in the community of Spitalfields and where he lived and was loved, by family and many friends alike.’

Urban Design Group

‘The Urban Design Group is greatly saddened by news of the passing of Richard MacCormac, celebrated architect, urbanist and patron of the Group, who died last Saturday after a long illness.

‘He was widely respected not only as an architect but also as a leader and a thinker who inspired a generation of young architects through his teaching engagements at University of Cambridge and elsewhere.

‘Sir Richard was a longstanding supporter of the UDG and an active and valued patron from 2010 until his death. His work on new ways of looking at suburban density and housing typologies which could inform a new ‘sustainable suburbia’ was of tremendous relevance, in particular his emphasis on the fundamental importance of walkability. He spoke at the Group’s 2009 conference in Cambridge and delivered the 2010 Kevin Lynch Memorial Lecture on this subject which continues to provoke lively debate. UDG Chair Katy Neaves said ‘He was a charming man and his commitment to building better places will be sorely missed.’

‘The UDG is very sad to lose a great architect and urbanist thinker who had such a breadth of vision and was happy to be working across the fields of both architecture and urbanism.’

Laura Lee, chief executive, Maggie’s

‘I am terribly saddened that Richard MacCormac has died after living with cancer for more than a year. I had the great pleasure of working very closely with Richard as he designed our beautiful and calming Maggie’s Centre in Cheltenham, a building which will be a lasting tribute to his wonderful work and vision, and a place which will continue to bring joy and strength to all of the people who use the Centre as they too live their lives with or after cancer. I stayed in close contact with Richard over the years and my thoughts go out to his family and his many close friends and colleagues as we share in the loss of such an inspirational man and architect.’

Funeral details

When 11 August, 11.30am

Where Christchurch Spitalfields, Commercial Street, London

Previous story (AJ 28.07.14)

Obituary: Richard MacCormac (1938-2014)

Richard MacCormac, the former RIBA President and founder of MJP Architects, has died aged 75 following a long illness

The ‘inspirational’ modernist architect, who had been suffering from cancer, was best known for his award-winning university buildings including the Sainsbury Building (1982) and the Garden Quadrangle at Oxford (1993), the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster (1996) and the Burrell’s Fields at Trinity College, Cambridge (1996) - a scheme he considered his finest.

MacCormac, who was made a Royal Academician in 1993, also worked on the underground station for the Jubilee Line Extension at Southwark and the Phoenix regeneration in Coventry, which was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2004.

A year later the ‘architect’s architect’ was famously fired halfway through the BBC’s £400million Broadcasting House project for refusing to compromise on design quality.

MacCormac’s name is known throughout the profession

Born in Marylebone, London in September 1938, MacCormac came from a  well-known medical family and was the son of Dr Henry MacCormac, a dermatologist of Northern Irish origin.

He spent his national service in the Royal Navy and retained a love for the sea, owning and sailing a 1908 oyster fishing smack.

MacCormac earned a double first at Trinity CollegeUniversity of Cambridge - he would later teach in Cambridge between 1969–75 and 1979-81 - before going on to study at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.

He founded MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard (MJP Architects) in 1972, eventually leaving three years ago to set up his own consultancy. In 1981, MacCormac met his long-term partner and Spitalfields neighbour Jocasta Innes, the well-known author. MacCormac said his relationship with Innes, who died in April last year, was the most important in his working life.

Jeremy Estop, the current managing director of MJP, described MacCormac as a having an ‘unquenchable enthusiasm for architecture’.

He said: ‘While many architects achieve great success, few achieve distinction in all facets of architecture as Richard did.

‘In design, as one of the pre-eminent architects of his generation; in education, as an inspirational university professor; in the profession, as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects; as a Royal Academician; as a writer of many articles on architecture; and as an insightful adviser to many distinguished organisations.

‘His name is known throughout the profession’.

Estop, who had worked with MacCormac for more than 20 years, said he had remarkable ‘architectural intuition’ and a ‘rare gift with words’ allowing him to ‘speak through design’.

He added ‘Richard wore his intellect lightly, constantly perspicacious, but always ready with an anecdote or joke. He was eager to exchange ideas with everyone regardless of age or experience.’

Book Review ( November 2010) by Alan Powers

Building Ideas: MJP Architects with essays and speculations by Richard MacCormac, Rightangle Publishing, November 2010

Some architects do an oeuvre book every decade, or more often. Richard MacCormac has waited, and to good effect. Building Ideas is no promotional coffee-table volume, despite a good ration of glamorous photography, but a thoughtful review of 40 years of work, and still going strong.

After four introductory texts, each thematic section is introduced by a short specialist essay. Within the celebratory tone required for such operations, these writings are full of insight about things beyond the immediate subject. The bulk of the text is by Nicola Jackson, formerly of World Architecture, who does an excellent job.

Born in 1938, MacCormac comes from the generation required to question modernism. While his long-lasting partners are duly acknowledged, he is really the subject. His own educational experience, described in the book in a piece reprinted from Arena in 1967, contrasted the formalist aestheticism of Cambridge with the mechanistic alternative of the Bartlett. He tended to the former, and, as things turned out, backed the right horse, since the power of image and narrative has supported his abilities in logical planning and problem solving and put him in a mainstream position during the past three decades.

MacCormac’s career is almost a parable for the whole drift of architecture since 1970. One is tempted to call him a post-modernist, had that term not been ‘wrecked’ as he puts it. We need another word for Edward Cullinan, ABK and many others who have weathered the storms of the 1960s and 70s and helped to re-establish trust in architects and their intentions. Their influence will be seen as enormous and long lasting.

Among them, MacCormac is one who comes closest to the forms of the past, while always keeping that last little bit of distance by which he retains modernist credentials. Whether the convoluted referencing is helpful to the success of the buildings is questionable, where John Soane is concerned there are many useful formal strategies to be taken. In the case of the Ruskin Library at Lancaster, the interpretation required a shift between words and built forms, producing a building that seems to lose the point by trying too hard, although it was clearly fun to do. The use of artworks within buildings has been a specialism, and these have been imaginatively commissioned, making MacCormac a throwback to the Edwardian Arts and Crafts movement in its more fruitier manifestations.

With planners and clients eager to hear stories about buildings as justification for their forms, we seem sometimes to lose the ability to judge on visual criteria. If only architects could afford a return to the old days when, like James Stirling, you explained complex projects simply in terms of the brief, design might escape from the current confessional culture that can produce rather literal metaphors and instead concentrate on being rather than busily doing.

One revelatory aspect of the book is the collection of MacCormac writings filling nearly 50 pages at the end. For a historian these are a treasure, since he is an unusually lucid writer and  thinker. The long review of the first phase of Thamesmead explains a lot about his future direction, given that housing was his main preoccupation when it was written in October 1972 for the AJ (AJ 18.10.72). He is fair but critical. Thamesmead, he says, ‘belongs to the period of Wilmot and Young’s Family and Kinship in East London, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Roger Mayne’s photography of the East End.

It represents a reaction by architects against the middle-class values of suburbia and the feeble aesthetics of the Mark One New Towns in favour of a bold act of communal architecture which conceives the town as a building and preserves the value of street life.’ Against this intention he questions ‘whether something altogether more modest and private might have been achieved, appropriate to a potentially suburban situation, without betraying social and aesthetic ideals’.

Acknowledging the argument that tall buildings were thought desirable ‘for the town to hold its own against its neighbours, the power stations’, he suggests that ‘a row of apple trees 30ft from a ground floor window could obscure the horizon’ equally effectively.  Raised streets might work as community glue, he accepts, but asks whether they wouldn’t do just as well on the ground.

This sort of Occam’s Razor of realism represents MacCormac at his best, in my view. At a time when, without apparently knowing quite why, many people are ignited with inspiration by the memory of municipal brutalism, it is salutary to recall how literally half-baked many of its ideas actually were – part way there but still missing vital ingredients and testing.

Analysis of the catalogue of jobs shown in the final pages reveals a move from standard social housing into more niche building types, such as museums and universities. No surprise there, but perhaps a sad reflection that so much talent in one generation has been diverted from areas that needed it most.

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