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Richard MacCormac: a logical narrative

Richard MacCormac weathered the storms of post-modernism and helped to re-establish trust in architects and their intentions, writes Alan Powers

Building Ideas: MJP Architects with essays and speculations by Richard MacCormac, Rightangle Publishing, November 2010, £29.95

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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