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‘Inspirational’ British Library architect MJ Long dies, aged 79

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Architect Mary Jane Long – or MJ as she was known – who famously designed the British Library building at St Pancras with Colin St John Wilson has died, aged 79

Born in the USA in 1939, Long studied at Smith College in Massachusetts then completed a degree in architecture at Yale before moving to England in 1965. She worked with Colin ‘Sandy’ St John Wilson from 1965, later marrying him in 1972.

Long worked as principal architect partner on the hugely ambitious and now Grade I-listed British Library project over nearly two decades. The project had started under St John Wilson in 1962 and was finally completed in 1997. 

She also ran a separate practice, MJ Long Architect, from 1974 to 1996, designing several purpose-built artists’ studios for names such as Peter Blake, RB Kitaj, Paul Huxley and Frank Auerbach. She would later write a book about them, Artists’ Studios, published in 2009

In 1994, Long and then-colleague Rolfe Kentish both left Colin St John Wilson & Partners to set up their own firm, after seeing off ABK and Andrew Merrylees to win their first main commission – a £3 million library project for Brighton University (see AJ 22.06.94). 

Speaking as the pair announced the creation of their new north London-based studio Long & Kentish, she said: ’What we are really hoping to do is grow as the British Library shrinks, bringing staff over from the other practice.

’Colin St John Wilson & Partners and the British Library are so closely associated in people’s minds that it often does not get thought of for other projects. 

’We are trying to build some flexibility into our lives, to create a life after the British Library.’

After the British Library, Long & Kentish worked with St John Wilson on the highly acclaimed new Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Completed in 2006, the building houses St John Wilson’s private modern art collection, one of the most important in Britain

Lk pallant 03long kentish credit david grandorge

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester by Long & Kentish with Colin St John Wilson

Source: David Grandorge

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester by Long & Kentish with Colin St John Wilson

Other schemes delivered by the practice included the Jewish Museum in Camden, the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, and an addition to the British Museum and the Keeper’s House at the Royal Academy.

Long also taught and became a CABE commissioner, chairing the watchdog’s design review panel.

Tom Ebdon, head of architecture and interior design at Falmouth University said the school was ’extremely privileged’ to have had Long as a visiting professor.

He said: ’She was a truly inspirational character. She possessed a scalpel-sharp intellect, which she used with empathy and understanding. MJ was straight-talking, passionate, exceptionally talented and held utter faith in the power of drawing as the true investigative tool for any student of architecture.

’MJ seemed most at home when rolling up her sleeves and settling down with our first-year students to tease out their ideas and help them translate a fuzzy mess of bits and pieces into coherent design proposals.’

Ebdon added: ’Her architecture always had a defined human scale, highly sophisticated material choices and detailing considered from the starting point of a person and how light then interacts with that person and space.

‘Alongside her obvious skills, talent and success as an architect, MJ also had a fantastic sense of humour and a perfectly formed turn of phrase. She will remain a source of inspiration and she will be hugely missed by all here at Falmouth.’

National maritime museum falmout

The National Maritime Museum in Falmouth by Long & Kentish

The National Maritime Museum in Falmouth by Long & Kentish

Former RIBA president Stephen Hodder said: ’We’re losing a generation of wonderful architects. She chaired a number of CABE design review panels that I sat on. Her perception, incisiveness and erudition made an incalculable contribution to the process. She will be sadly missed.’

Former CABE chair and programme director of the World Architecture Festival Paul Finch said: ‘MJ was a valued contributor to the CABE design review programme for many years, where her knowledge, power of analysis and diplomatic manner impressed all who experience them. She had admirable personal design skills, which she combined with ability to assess the ideas of others without stylistic prejudice – a great critic.’

The architect had been working for Long & Kentish until last Friday when the practice submitted a planning application for Anchor Studio in Penzance for the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust. MJ Long produced 10 drawings for this project.

Long’s partner Colin St John Wilson passed away in 2007, aged 85 (see AJ 16.05.07). She is survived by her daughter Sal Wilson, her son Harry Wilson and three grandchildren.

She died on Sunday night after a long illness.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • ed frith

    Will always treasure and remember her critical, intelligent, positive comments and presence, in the male dominated tutor & review land of Cambridge School of Architecture in the 80s.

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  • Don't forget the wonderful hand-stitched solution to the Artists' Studios on Porthmeor Beach, St Ives: a lovely, sensitive scheme

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  • Really sad to lose someone who was both a sensitive and sensible designer...(I guess "sensible" nowadays is not a compliment,, but I mean it to be) MJ could dig down to the nub of a problem and propose an elegant solution that seemed inevitable...

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