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Jane Wernick pays tribute to Kathryn Findlay at WIA

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Engineer Jane Wernick has paid tribute to the late Kathryn Findlay who was awarded the Jane Drew Prize today

Wernick was speaking at the AJ Women in Architecture awards ceremony held at London’s Langham hotel, where Findlay’s daughter Miya collected the honour.

‘It is a terrifying, but hugely privileged opportunity that I have been given to talk about such an extraordinary person, to this particular, and amazing group of architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and clients – people who really care about the built environment, and who value the contribution that women make.

‘Kathryn was one of those rare people who managed to inspire others by being completely herself.  Her approach to life seemed to be truly holistic.  So that her writing, thinking, drawing, cooking, sewing, model making, teaching, and talking were not separate activities, but all facets of her total life.

‘It is interesting that Jane Drew herself met and became a friend of Ove Arup through MARS - the Modern Architecture ReSearch group - and that one of Ove’s preoccupations was what he called Total Architecture.  Because in many ways I think that is what Kathryn believed in.  She was always equally interested in the process of making as much as in thinking through ideas and theories.

‘Kathryn first studied art in Edinburgh before deciding to study architecture. She graduated from the Architectural Association in 1979, having inspired her tutors, including Christine Hawley, Peter Cook and Leon van Schaik, as much as her fellow students.  She then went to Japan, where she found work at the office of Arata Isozaki.

‘It was there that she met Eisaku Ushida.  In 1986 they took the unusual step, in Japan, of forming an independent practice, Ushida Findlay. She was also appointed associate professor at the University of Tokyo, and was the first female academic in the architecture department, as well as the first foreigner to teach there since Josiah Conder in the Meiji Period.

‘The Truss Wall House, completed in 1993 was one of a series of projects that the practice designed in Japan. 

‘A series of sinuous concrete forms, she likened it to a ‘worm eating through an apple, carving spaces out of a solid mass, rather than making an object and filling it with something.’


Truss Wall House, 1993


‘It was commissioned by the owner of the Truss Wall system, which was a method for constructing compound curves in concrete, previously only used for non-structural applications such as sculptures. 

‘These slides show how she was completely absorbed by how things are put together, and how her interest in and love of the forms of nature infused her work.

‘This next house was built for a client who took Salvador Dali’s prophesy that the future of architecture would be ‘soft and hairy’ to heart.  It rises out of the ground with rough-rendered walls, and is planted with a shaggy lawn of grass and wild flowers.  The blue room is the bath room and Kathryn herself sewed the hairy fur cladding of its door.

‘This kimono-inspired baby sleeping bag was another of her projects.

‘There followed a number of pool projects, inclduing the Kaizankyo Spa Resort in Wakayama, that was completed in 1995.

Kaizankyo Spa Resort by Ushida Findlay

Kaizankyo Spa Resort by Ushida Findlay

‘Kathryn brought the practice back to the U.K. in 1999. It was around this time that I first met her.  Having recently left Arups to start my own practice, we had quite a lot in common….

‘Poolhouse 1 was an early project. It is characterised by curving forms and thatched roofs, with hairy ridges.

‘And Poolhouse 2 was completed in 2009. Again, this was thatched, and her method of working, using models continued.

‘This next project was originally designed as a residence in Doha, and then became an art foundation.  Again you can see her unique way of working.  Constantly using models and drawings to explore the idea of space as a solid that can be carved and sculpted.  Unfortunately it was only half built and then later demolished to make way for infrastructure.

‘As you know, the practice was bankrupted by the Doha experience in 2004, and Kathryn moved to Dundee to teach for a few years.  I was moved by these slides from a presentation that Kathryn made to the V&A in Scotland.  Her analysis of Dundee sitting in a giant room, and how the clouds and mists change the light seem to epitomise her way of looking at the world.  Her meticulous investigation led to the idea of a mirrored surface, to create ephemeral architecture.

‘Of course I must mention the Orbit.  Given the almost impossible task of sorting out the architecture for this massive sculpture, I was most impressed by Kathryn’s response to the problem of how to deal with the staircase.  The zig-zag form of this was bound to be at odds with the curving forms of the red sculpture, and so the idea to, in effect thread a mesh ribbon around it was probably her most important contribution.  I know this was a difficult project for her, but she seemed always to have the knack of looking on the bright side, and was proud of what she achieved for it. 

‘And now the practice is working to complete the York Art Gallery project.  This is the conversion and extension of a Grade II listed exhibition hall.  The ceiling that blocked the views of the roof structure is being replaced with a mezzanine level, which is cut back at one end to give a double height space. It will be a museum for modern ceramics.  These are sample tiles, based on the traditional York hexagonal tiles, that will go on one of the new elevations.  This project is on site now and should be completed towards the end of this year.

‘So Kathryn’s body of work is coming, sadly to a close. Those who knew her will also remember her love of food, another of her ways of extending friendship, and exploring, sometimes complex ideas.

‘Kathryn may not have built a huge number projects, but she still managed to turn architecture on its head and challenge us to question what it should be.  Many of the slides I have shown came from this lecture she gave to the Australian Institute of Architects in 2012.

‘In her last months she spent her time thinking, and drawing, and among other things, planning with the engineer Ed Clark a possible inhabited installation

‘And for those who were fortunate to go to her funeral at the chapel at Caroline Gardens at the Asylum in Peckham, that was perhaps her last project.  Planned with love, grace, honesty and courage, it was one of the most beautiful gifts she could have given us.  We won’t ever forget it.’

And, dear Kathryn, we won’t ever forget you.  Thank you for being with us.

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