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Isi Metzstein: architect at home

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The practice of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia was terminated in 1985 and we gave our archives to the Glasgow School of Art. Last year they exhibited the material with The Lighthouse.

The way the show was received gave me a certain amount of gratification. The work we had been doing for so many years had gone relatively unnoticed; now there is renewed interest.

I’ve always thought it takes 40 or 50 years for ‘art’ to become appreciated and I think that is what is happening. We tried to design buildings to be physically and metaphorically permanent and timeless. We never designed for the day, but always into the future.

I continue to have a strong interest in architecture. I try to get involved, and do get involved, in projects that are still on drawing boards, at other people’s request, usually ex-students of mine - nothing formal.

Occasionally I revisit our work for practical purposes, not to exalt over them. Part of the recent exhibition involved making a film about our work. We went back to the chapel of Robinson College, Cambridge, to film part of it.

I’ve lived in Scotland since 1939, and since 1943 in Glasgow where I’ve spent my entire architectural career. I live in the West End, a residential area near Glasgow University. I wasn’t involved in the architecture of my home, a sandstone villa of around 1910. 

Retirement is a question of definition. Our practice more or less came to an end in ‘85, so that was a retirement. But I had a professorship at Edinburgh School of Architecture until ‘91, so strictly speaking I retired then. However, I then went back to teaching part time at the Mackintosh School in Glasgow until two years ago, so I’ve had a number of retirements, I’m still waiting for the final one.   

Most contemporary architecture depresses rather than excites me. Perhaps depress is too strong a word - maybe I should say leaves me cold.   I am very interested in architecture in Scotland. I remain very interested in non-architected architecture such as Scottish castles, tower-houses or any buildings that are spontaneous or non-stylistic. But to be honest I’m interested in all architecture and I’ll go a long way to look at it. My last significant trip was to Italy, I have an affinity with the country. That is one of my continued interests.  

I look at all architecture when I travel, not exclusively contemporary. My feeling, which might be completely jaundiced, is that most contemporary building are trivial one-liners. If you have a whole range of architecture to look at, it would be foolish to think that the contemporary work is the best. Of course I’ve seen what is, in my opinion, the best of modern architecture and it wasn’t necessarily produced yesterday. I go to Finland to see Aalto, I go to America to see Frank Lloyd Wright… but I wouldn’t rush to go to see the latest Hadid or Gehry.   

I read a lot, go to the theatre and cinema regularly. On a typical day, half of my time is filled with reading, the other with television and trips to the theatre, cinema and exhibitions. I have offspring in London so I travel there quite regularly. 

I was an avid reader of architectural magazines while I was teaching and in practice, then I subscribed to Architectural Review, for example, for 40 or 50 years. I still have all the copies in my library. I still read architectural books, and occasionally write about buildings and architecture.   I do rather too much reading of newspapers I’m afraid, a habit I picked up during the War. I’ve never given that up. I still need to know what’s going on in the world, especially if I am to stay hostile to it… That’s a joke by the way.

Isi Metzstein was one of the principals of Gillespie Kidd & Coia. He is an academic and writer

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