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Kathryn Findlay (1953-2014)

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Kathryn Findlay, who died earlier this year, was a genius – a real one, in that she had exceptional creative power, which is pretty much the standard definition of the much overused and misused word.

I can still remember my sense of disbelief and delight when I first saw her Truss Wall House – bubbly and boney, bright white and sinewy, moonlike and four-dimensional. It looked frighteningly new.

Today, the metaphors still come thick and fast: a huge seashell from a long lost island; a star collapsing under its own gravity; a giant alien’s petrified skull (an image enhanced by the strange molar-like courtyard paving within).

But there were genuine architectural influences too: the organic Modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright, the surreal flair of Bruce Goff and Bart Prince, and the geological mimicry of Antoni Gaudí.

Of course Kathryn was full of admiration for other great architects, but her talent was genuinely unique, a force of nature, something that simply had to be, and very much its own thing.

Truss Wall House (1993) was designed with her then husband Eisaku Ushida, with whom she founded the legendary Tokyo-based studio Ushida Findlay in 1987.

Legendary, because Kathryn and Eisaku completed a number of other startling projects in Japan, whose sheer verve and originality trumped pretty much everything else that was being built at the time. In 1993, Frank Gehry had yet to complete his Bibao Guggenheim; Zaha Hadid had seen her Vitra fire station go up, but not much else; and parametric architecture, a brand of form-making, made possible by complex 3D software devised for the aeronautics, computer animation and special effects industries, had still to find expression in the field.

Yet the Truss Wall House – real, solid, and lived in – and now more than 20 years old, was unrelated. Parametrics wasn’t Kathryn’s thing. Instead, she explained when I finally met her in 2009, I should imagine a worm carving a route through an apple as the method which led to its wondrous, hollowed-out form.

Kathryn was down to earth. She grew up on a farm on the east coast of Scotland. She loved nature and the land, and knew how it worked. She had no desire to obscure her inspiration with uncertain philosophies or academic camouflage.

If the Truss Wall House was all Kathryn had built, it would have been enough to make her canon, but she went on to complete many more remarkable buildings. Among my favourites are two pool houses she designed in the south of England when she moved Ushida Findlay to the UK in 1999.  They have the same unsettling beauty as her Japanese houses, yet blend new with old, their glass walls and thatched roofs forging a new kind of Englishness; a new kind of Arts and Crafts.

I joked with her that we should call it, ‘Future-rustic’. She loved that, but she laughed about it too. Kathryn was a genius, but that rare kind: one with a sense of humour. Just look at those smiling eyes.

Kathryn Findlay was winner of the 2014 Jane Drew Prize.


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