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Obituary: Kathryn Findlay (1953-2014)


Kathryn Findlay, the ‘truly brilliant’ architect who co-founded Ushida Findlay, has died aged 60

The architect, who had been suffering from a brain tumour, was best known for her Truss Wall House in Tokyo (1993), Soft and Hairy House also in Tokyo (1994), her Poolhouse 2 in the Chilterns (2009) and, most recently, for her work on the ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower in London’s 2012 Olympic Park.

The news came as the jury for the 2014 Jane Drew Prize, unaware that Findlay had died, announced she had been given the award ‘for her outstanding contribution to the status of .

Born in Forfar, Findlay graduated from the Architectural Association in London in 1979 before spending 20 years teaching and working in Japan, including in the offices of Arata Isozaki.

It was in Japan in 1986 that she founded Ushida Findlay Architects with her then-husband Eisaku Ushida. She became the first female academic in the department of architecture at Tokyo University and the first foreigner to teach there since Josiah Conder in the Meiji Period.

Ushida Findlay - Soft and Hairy house, Tkyo

Ushida Findlay - Soft and Hairy house, Tokyo

In the 1990s she made the headlines with her neo-expressionist schemes and a ‘succession of wildly imaginative houses in Japan and the UK that seemed to have come from a different planet’ The Guardian . The practice relocated from Japan to London in 1999 and she soon landed the vernacular-busting Poolhouse 1 in south-east England.

Despite winning the RIBA competition for Grafton New Hall with a mould-breaking, starfish-shaped country house in 2000 and having her work showcased in the Peter Cook-curated British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale two years later, the practice ran into financial problems in 2004.

She came back with Poolhouse 2 in 2009 and went on to have a hand in the Orbit tower - the unmissable red-steel viewing platform at the London 2012 Games which she delivered for Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond.

Findlay, who found out she was ill early last year, also taught at the University of Dundee and received an RIAS Honourary fellowship in September.

Describing Findlay, the AJ’s deputy editor Rory Olcayto, said: ‘Kathryn was a good friend and a truly brilliant architect. One of the best. Her Japanese houses are a highpoint in British architectural achievement. She’d laugh that off though - because she was so modest, and full of good humour.

‘We joked that her thatched roof pool houses, joyful buildings that effortlessly fused contemporary and medieval technologies, were future-rustic.’

He added: ‘I’ll miss her kind laugh most of all. My thoughts go out to her family.’

Secretary and Treasurer of RIAS, Neil Baxter, a long-term friend of Findlay, said: ‘Kathryn was an extraordinarily important female architect, but in truth she was an extraordinary architect irrespective of gender.

‘Her architecture was extremely innovative, special, sensitive to space and always unique. I had the great pleasure of being firstly her client - she did the fit-out of my flat in Glasgow - then as a friend from 1998. I regarded her as among my closest friends.

‘She sparkled. She was life-affirming, full of enthusiasm and had amazing ideas - very often from out of left field.’

‘I will miss her as a creative presence and as an inspiring friend.’

Learning of Findlay’s death and her winning of the Jane Drew Prize, past winner Zaha Hadid said: ‘Like myself, in the early days Kathryn struggled as a woman in architecture, but she persevered. I remember her when we were both students at the AA, she was very hard working and enthusiastic. It is shame that she is not here to receive this award personally, but it is lovely that her family get to see her honoured in this way.’

Jane Drew Prize juror Eva Jiřičná added: ‘I am just so shocked. She was one of the most talented people in British architecture. Personally, it was an immense pleasure to have known her, and I hope her work will be discovered by a new generation. I hope we have assured her place in architectural history with this prize.’

Kathryn Findlay’s funeral

Saturday 25th January 2014
The Chapel at Caroline Gardens, Asylum
Asylum Road, SE15 2SQ

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her memory to Scene & Heard. Findlay was passionate about the work of this unique mentoring project that partners the children of Somers Town, Camden with professional theatre artists.

Scene & Heard
Kathryn Findlay Future Fund
Theatro Technis
26 Crowndale Road
London, NW1 1TT
0845 009 0775

Kathryn Findlay: Back with a redefined approach by Rory Olcayto (AJ 27.02.09)

Kathryn Findlay on Kathryn Findlay (interview excerpt from the AJ 07.02.13)

Why did you become an architect?
To mix poetry and pragmatism.

What is your design ethos?
Balance in the design team. Honesty in the drivers. Make the most of what’s available.

Which women architects inspire you?
Christine Hawley, a brilliant teacher; Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary imagination; Farshid Moussavi’s self-confident ideas; Jane Wernick’s inspired insight; Eva Jiřičná’s ability to create jewels; Cany Ash’s forthright outspokenness; Fionn Stevenson’s depth of humanity.

What is your advice to aspiring female architects?
Focus and be open to possibilities – don’t be put off by the aggression of others. Think things through, quietly get things done and communicate clearly, always taking into account the position of the other parties. The advantage we have as women is we are natural mediators between people and man and nature.

Why do women leave the profession?
It’s very gruelling and not as financially rewarding as it should be, given the time put in. Maybe women work that out faster than men.

What would make them stay?
RIBA committees that are more accessible to a wider range of the industry and formal professional fee scales to minimise undercutting. Bargain-basement bidding puts additional pressure for diminished returns and pay.

What is the biggest challenge facing women in architecture?
Everyone in architecture is facing financial fallout. Stamina and determination pay, as long as you have the design talent to see your work through.



Readers' comments (6)

  • Angela Brady

    Kathryn was a most inspiring person and brilliant architect. She was full of bright ideas right to the end. We had fun filming her in front of the Orbit during the Paralympics. What a pity she did not know about her recognition as being such a special person with the AJ Jane Drew Award, she would have been absolutely delighted.

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  • Kathryn was my undergraduate tutor and mentor since joining the University of Dundee in 2005. She was a fantastic teacher and a true inspiration to me. She was always bursting with creative and imaginative ideas. A great loss to the profession.

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  • Very sad indeed to have heard about the death of Kathryn Findlay. She was a very talented architect as well as a warm and generous person, always complimentary about other people's work and modest about her own, despite having made some excellent buildings. She was one of rare breed who, often at considerable cost to the progress of their careers, try to do something unique and different. In this she succeeded.

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  • I am so shocked and saddened to learn of Kathryn's death; she was a lovely, unassuming, charming and modest woman as well as a unique and creative thinker and generally great architect. Such a role model for others too - a shining light has gone out this week in the world of architecture.

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  • I am very sad to hear of Kathryn's passing. I had the privilege of serving on a Doolan Award jury with her and remember her great sense of fun and humour as well as an incisive questioning brain. She was a joy to know. Her death is a great loss to Architecture and to Scotland.

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  • Shocked. I did not know she was ill but I had recently re-connected with her after many years, yet true to her affable and cheery character she never let on that she was ill. I worked with her and her ex-husband in a small tiny apartment between Gotanda and Shinagawa in Tokyo for almost two years after undergraduate school. She, the creative one, he, the technical guru, together, they were one of the most talented architects I have come across. Unfortunately, they were too far ahead of their time as Japan was not ready for their vision. Work was intense but never the center of life. She taught me humility, passion and drive with a professional perspective and not least of all, how to make proper English tea.

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