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Profession’s leading figures pay tribute to Richard Burton

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Richard Rogers and other leaders of UK architecture have paid tribute to ABK co-founder Richard Burton, who died at the weekend aged 83

Richard Rogers, of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Model of the final revised design for the national gallery extension credit riba collections

Model of the final revised design for the national gallery extension credit riba collections

Source: RIBA Collections

Model of the final revised design for the National Gallery extension

’I had known Richard for many years. Though we were born in the same year (1933) I did National Service so he was a few years ahead of me at the Architectural Association.

’He was among the best architects of that generation - he was extremely good, very sensitive, very intelligent. University projects suited them down to the ground.

’I was furious when they got attacked over their National Gallery proposals by Prince Charles - as I later did [over Chelsea Barracks]. It was completely unjustified and did a lot of damage.

’After that they did very little in England and that was very unfair. I felt that in a democratic society that shouldn’t happen. It is time to reappraise the practice’s work.’

Níall McLaughlin, founder, Níall McLaughlin Architects

Richard had already retired when I met him. I was writing a piece about ABK’s Berkeley Library in Trinity College Dublin. This building had inspired me to take up architecture when I was leaving school, aged 17, and I wanted to ask him some questions about it.

He invited me around to his marvellous house behind the circular door on Lady Margaret Road. It was like going into an enchanted world. Lunch was served by his wife Mireille and all three ABK partners sat around the kitchen table with me, beneath a roof light sheltered by a great London plane tree. The gentle wooden furniture in the room had been made for him by his son, Bim.

We spent the afternoon together drinking wine and remembering that extraordinary commission in 1960s Ireland. They were so young and it was such a big break, but they made a building that feels like the mature work of a master. The warmth and pleasure they communicated in each other’s company was an inspiration to me.

After that, Richard quietly supported me. He would call around to my office, which was nearby, and I would show him my work. He would offer me useful and tactful advice on architectural and practical matters. Then we would have a good lunch. He became a warm, avuncular presence in my life.

When I moved to Kentish Town with my family, the first people to cross the door were Richard and Mireille with their traditional gifts of bread and salt. They were very proud of their neighbourhood and their own hospitable place in it.

Through 15 years of retirement, Richard’s passion for architecture never dimmed. Every time we met, he would be on fire with another possible scheme: a tiny gap site, sea containers, student self-build projects, a publication, or some drawings.

I saw him last about a month or so ago. He was at home in bed in his studio, surrounded by his models, drawings, photographs and publications. We sat, looking over that lovely secret garden behind the round door. He was not well, but still full of curiosity; for news, for stories of work on site, for new projects and competitions. That is where he died last Saturday night, surrounded by his projects and his family and the wonderful house that they had built for each other.

Piers Taylor, founder, Invisible Studio

’Richard was a brilliant eccentric that felt like the last of a dying breed of tectonically experimental, socially engaged architects, effortlessly transcending conventional boundaries between architecture, engineering and construction. I got to know him well during the time I was working at the AA’s Hooke Park campus, as he was on the advisory group for the buildings we did there. At Hooke, he’d designed an extraordinary pair of timber buildings that used low grade thinnings from the forest, held in tension, in one case, with a skin of Sarnafil – effortlessly marrying experimental engineering with the found materials of the forest.

While these projects were typically Burtonesque, Richard never repeated himself: every project felt like a prototype that transcended the simple terms of the brief, motivated by his need to discover something new. Each building he worked on – be it an Oxford College, his own house in London or, indeed, the timber structures at Hooke, felt like he was pushing boundaries. Typical of many of that generation of architects, he fearlessly invented his own terms for practice and showed us the possibilities for the art form he loved so much.

Relentlessly un-corporate, he had an infectious and child like enthusiasm for architecture – and by extension, life. He would fax long, hand written ruminations from Switzerland, where he had a second home. He would regale us, when we met, with tales of what it was like working with Frei Otto and Ted Happold, and was ever eager to review what we were working on. Although he was fascinated by detail, he saw architecture, more than anything as a social art and as a mechanism for bringing people together. His death means the loss of one of architecture’s great characters, and one of our great pioneers in a world that is becoming increasingly normalised. We’ll miss him terribly.



Richard Burton’s prototype house at Hooke

Catherine Croft, director, The Twentieth Century Society

’Richard was part of one of the most distinguished post-war practices in the UK. Their projects were always rigorously planned and meticulously detailed, with flair and confidence .

’When I was still at school and trying to work out if I wanted to be an architect, I spent a day at the ABK offices, shadowing Richard personally – kind of amazing in retrospect, and I can’t remember how it got set up – which was revelatory and incredibly inspiring.

’He was working on the John Lewis store in Kingston, and also a hospital project (can’t remember which), and made me aware of the breadth of knowledge needed to be an architect. More recently he has been a fantastic supporter of C20 Society, and has hosted our members at his house, which must be one of the most successful post-war architect’s own houses in London, reflecting his vision and his generosity. Great man.’

Burton house kentish town

Burton house kentish town

Richard Burton’s house in Kentish Town

Nicholas Grimshaw, founder and chairman of Grimshaw

’I am very sad to hear of the death of Richard Burton, and I believe he will be seen as one of the great architects of the 20th Century. His work had a humanity about it which was missing from many of his contemporaries. One only had to walk into the house he designed, and to meet his wife and family to know that.

’Richard also had an intense grasp of the science of architecture and was very influential in the birth of green architecture generally. He was a warm friend and I feel privileged to have known him.’

A never-realised proposal for a church in Soho, London by ABK

A never-realised proposal for a church in Soho, London by ABK

A never-realised proposal for a church in Soho, London by ABK

Paul Koralek, co-founder of ABK

’Richard was first and foremost a close and loyal friend as well as being a valued professional colleague. He was an irrreplacable component of ABK. The three of us shared a lifelong friendship which nourished our work as architects and enriched our lives. A friendship which in fact lasted for well over 60 years, ending only with Richard’s death.’

ABK's Berkeley Library

ABK’s Berkeley Library

ABK’s Berkeley Library

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The hospital, to which Catherine Croft refers, was probably the first "Low Energy" St Marys Isle of Wight where Richard Burton initiated the Art in Hospital programme. A highly civilised man he was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable promoter of art and architecture. Graham Cooper

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