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Remembering Kathryn Findlay: three tributes

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Tributes from Kathryn Findlay’s tutor Christine Hawley, her long-term friend Andrew Burrell and a joint testimonial by Neil Gillespie and Carol MacBain of Reiach and Hall Architects

Christine Hawley, professor of architectural studies, Bartlett School of Architecture
‘Kathryn Findlay was my first and only student when I first started teaching at the AA in 1978. While all the other students were queuing to be taught by the fashionable and famous, she was brave enough to embark on a year with me. I was indebted to her and, as the circumstances allowed much more time with Kathryn, it soon became obvious that she was someone with an exceptional and unique talent.

‘Kathryn was brave in many ways; she turned her back on the straightforward paths into the profession and left for Japan to work in the office of Arata Isozaki. It was there that she met her husband and professional partner Eisaku Ushida.

The Truss Wall House will influence many generations of young architects

‘Having won just one competition, they left Isozaki to set up their own practice – a courageous act as they were also turning their back on the established Japanese protocol of professional patronage. This freedom was high-risk but also liberating, in that Kathryn’s ability to harness sculptural organic forms allowed her to develop work that was not only architecture, but also art. The Truss Wall House is surely a seminal piece of work that will influence many generations of young architects. Eventually Findlay brought her practice to England – once again a decision that had risks, but her principles and unfaltering commitment to the quality of ideas and construction drove her to seek new challenges.

‘The work produced in the London office had all of the signature characteristics; fluid forms and sculptural presence, but despite the undoubted quality of the architecture, her practice succumbed like many to the pitfalls of faltering workloads.

‘Kathryn emerged as professor of architecture at the University of Dundee and established a university-based practice that many have aspired to, but few have succeeded. The university model she established was innovative, but eventually it was to a more familiar form of practice that she finally returned to in London.

‘At every stage of her life, Kathryn relished challenge. She was uncompromising and fearless in all she undertook. In the last few months of her life, she was philosophical and revelled in the fact that she could now return to her first passion, painting. Kathryn was an artist and architect whose extraordinary work will be a testament to her undoubted talent and brave principles.’

Truss Wall House - Ushida Findlay

Truss Wall House - Ushida Findlay

Andrew Burrell of the Burrell Company
‘Kath and I first met while we were at school in the small Scottish town of Forfar. Kath, who was born and brought up on her parent’s farm in the heart of the Angus countryside, attended her local school where she excelled in art. The colours and textures of the Angus countryside in varying weather conditions was a subject which she often recalled. On leaving school it was a natural progression for her to enrol in the drawing and painting course at Edinburgh College of Art which she did, but only for a year.

‘Kath was not one to be pigeonholed, or if you tried, you did so at your peril, and her career path was never straightforward. One of Kath’s most endearing talents was to make others sit up and think. Having persuaded this rather lost soul that studying architecture was worth trying, it was perhaps inevitable that she would eventually follow her own teachings. Never one to shy away from hard work, Kath retrained in order to give her the qualifications required to enter an architecture course. In the meantime, I had moved to London to study at the Architectural Association. The ethos of the AA appealed to her such that Kath entered the school in the 1970s.

‘Living first in a squat in Camden, followed by a spell on a houseboat on the Thames (from which she narrowly escaped when it caught fire), Kath was passionate about her new field of study.  She enjoyed the rigours of architecture, employing her drawing and painting skills to interpret her increasingly imaginative visions. These were truly formative years for Kath, and set her on a course of architectural exploration which continued throughout her life. 

‘She used her natural creativity in all manner of ways – to snare you with her dry Scottish wit or her self-effacing comments and stories (known as Kathecdotes in our family), or for her painted furniture (not always with the owner’s permission), her cooking experiments (adding Tabasco to an Eton Mess), the costumes she made for her own and her friends’ children. The list is never-ending. She had an effusive charm, a great ability to bring a smile to all of those lucky enough to spend time in her company.    

She had an effusive charm

‘On completing her diploma, Kath moved to Tokyo where she met Eisaku while working in the office of Arata Isozaki, returning to the UK in the early 1980s. Her first child, Miya, was born in Edinburgh while Eisaku designed a project for my then nascent development company. Unfortunately, the project was never built, or we could have perhaps claimed the first Ushida Findlay building in the world. The family moved to London prior to returning to Japan. 

‘Kath returned to the UK permanently in the late 1990s and shortly thereafter Ushida Findlay and The Burrell Company won an architect/developer competition to create part of the Homes for the Future project in Glasgow for that city’s Year of Architecture and Design in 1999.   

‘Kath’s daughter has followed Kath and Eisaku into the world of architecture, studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture and then working for a few years with Kath and more recently with Wilkinson Eyre. Her son Hugo, determined to improve on his mother’s culinary skills, has embarked on a career in catering.

‘She was most definitely a one-off. As the daughter of a farmer, it would be appropriate to say that she ploughed her own furrow, or ploo’d her ain dreal as she might once have said. I’m grateful that she lit up many aspects of my life over some 45 years.’ 


Neil Gillespie and Carol MacBain, Reiach and Hall Architects
‘Around the margins of the profession there are architects whose practice does not follow the accepted, or even understandable, route map. They follow a kind of lonely and distant bird’s path, high above the talk of the steamie. 

‘Kath Findlay was such a singular voice; one that could be heard above the din of mediocrity, if you were prepared to take time to stop and listen. She was a genuinely creative force and coming out of a small town on the edge of the North Sea made her talent all the more surprising and refreshing, or maybe explained it.

‘She was a self-effacing, warm and enthusiastic person who was always interested in people and ideas. It is a great sadness that she did not leave a larger body of work, but perhaps therein lies the quiet power of her legacy, a series of modestly scaled buildings that explored through space, form and material places for people in a unique and unpredictable way. The skies are less interesting now.

‘A dear and inspirational friend. We will miss her sparkle and sensitivity, her enthusiasm and mischievousness, her readiness to share ideas. We admired her resolute ambition. We talked often of working together. We shared lots of laughter, late nights and dreams. So many happy memories.’


Kathryn Findlay’s funeral:
Time: 10.15am, Saturday 25 January 2014
Place: The Chapel at Caroline Gardens, Asylum, Asylum Road, London, SE15 2SQ

Instead of flowers, Kathryn Findlay’s family has asked for donations to be made to charity Scene and Heard. The mentoring project partners the children of Somers Town, Camden with professional theatre artists.  Donations can be made in her memory to the Scene and Heard Kathryn Findlay Future Fund, Theatro Technis, 26 Crowndale Road, London, NW1 1TT, 0845 009 0775,www.sceneandheard.org


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