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Obituary: Richard MacCormac (1938-2014)


Richard MacCormac, the former RIBA President and founder of MJP Architects, has died aged 75 following a long illness

The ‘inspirational’ modernist architect, who had been suffering from cancer, was best known for his award-winning university buildings including the Sainsbury Building (1982) and the Garden Quadrangle at Oxford (1993), the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster (1996) and the Burrell’s Fields at Trinity College, Cambridge (1996) - a scheme he considered his finest.

MacCormac, who was made a Royal Academician in 1993, also worked on the underground station for the Jubilee Line Extension at Southwark and the Phoenix regeneration in Coventry, which was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2004.

A year later the ‘architect’s architect’ was famously fired halfway through the BBC’s £400million Broadcasting House project for refusing to compromise on design quality.

MacCormac’s name is known throughout the profession

Born in Marylebone, London in September 1938, MacCormac came from a  well-known medical family and was the son of Dr Henry MacCormac, a dermatologist of Northern Irish origin.

He spent his national service in the Royal Navy and retained a love for the sea, owning and sailing a 1908 oyster fishing smack.

MacCormac earned a double first at Trinity CollegeUniversity of Cambridge - he would later teach in Cambridge between 1969–75 and 1979-81 - before going on to study at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.

He founded MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard (MJP Architects) in 1972, eventually leaving three years ago to set up his own consultancy. In 1981, MacCormac met his long-term partner and Spitalfields neighbour Jocasta Innes, the well-known author. MacCormac said his relationship with Innes, who died in April last year, was the most important in his working life.

Jeremy Estop, the current managing director of MJP, described MacCormac as a having an ‘unquenchable enthusiasm for architecture’.

He said: ‘While many architects achieve great success, few achieve distinction in all facets of architecture as Richard did.

‘In design, as one of the pre-eminent architects of his generation; in education, as an inspirational university professor; in the profession, as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects; as a Royal Academician; as a writer of many articles on architecture; and as an insightful adviser to many distinguished organisations.

‘His name is known throughout the profession’.

Estop, who had worked with MacCormac for more than 20 years, said he had remarkable ‘architectural intuition’ and a ‘rare gift with words’ allowing him to ‘speak through design’.

He added ‘Richard wore his intellect lightly, constantly perspicacious, but always ready with an anecdote or joke. He was eager to exchange ideas with everyone regardless of age or experience.’

Funeral details

When 11 August, 11.30am

Where Christchurch Spitalfields, Commercial Street, London

Book Review ( November 2010) by Alan Powers

Building Ideas: MJP Architects with essays and speculations by Richard MacCormac, Rightangle Publishing, November 2010

Some architects do an oeuvre book every decade, or more often. Richard MacCormac has waited, and to good effect. Building Ideas is no promotional coffee-table volume, despite a good ration of glamorous photography, but a thoughtful review of 40 years of work, and still going strong.

After four introductory texts, each thematic section is introduced by a short specialist essay. Within the celebratory tone required for such operations, these writings are full of insight about things beyond the immediate subject. The bulk of the text is by Nicola Jackson, formerly of World Architecture, who does an excellent job.

Born in 1938, MacCormac comes from the generation required to question modernism. While his long-lasting partners are duly acknowledged, he is really the subject. His own educational experience, described in the book in a piece reprinted from Arena in 1967, contrasted the formalist aestheticism of Cambridge with the mechanistic alternative of the Bartlett. He tended to the former, and, as things turned out, backed the right horse, since the power of image and narrative has supported his abilities in logical planning and problem solving and put him in a mainstream position during the past three decades.

MacCormac’s career is almost a parable for the whole drift of architecture since 1970. One is tempted to call him a post-modernist, had that term not been ‘wrecked’ as he puts it. We need another word for Edward Cullinan, ABK and many others who have weathered the storms of the 1960s and 70s and helped to re-establish trust in architects and their intentions. Their influence will be seen as enormous and long lasting.

Among them, MacCormac is one who comes closest to the forms of the past, while always keeping that last little bit of distance by which he retains modernist credentials. Whether the convoluted referencing is helpful to the success of the buildings is questionable, where John Soane is concerned there are many useful formal strategies to be taken. In the case of the Ruskin Library at Lancaster, the interpretation required a shift between words and built forms, producing a building that seems to lose the point by trying too hard, although it was clearly fun to do. The use of artworks within buildings has been a specialism, and these have been imaginatively commissioned, making MacCormac a throwback to the Edwardian Arts and Crafts movement in its more fruitier manifestations.

With planners and clients eager to hear stories about buildings as justification for their forms, we seem sometimes to lose the ability to judge on visual criteria. If only architects could afford a return to the old days when, like James Stirling, you explained complex projects simply in terms of the brief, design might escape from the current confessional culture that can produce rather literal metaphors and instead concentrate on being rather than busily doing.

One revelatory aspect of the book is the collection of MacCormac writings filling nearly 50 pages at the end. For a historian these are a treasure, since he is an unusually lucid writer and  thinker. The long review of the first phase of Thamesmead explains a lot about his future direction, given that housing was his main preoccupation when it was written in October 1972 for the AJ (AJ 18.10.72). He is fair but critical. Thamesmead, he says, ‘belongs to the period of Wilmot and Young’s Family and Kinship in East London, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Roger Mayne’s photography of the East End.

It represents a reaction by architects against the middle-class values of suburbia and the feeble aesthetics of the Mark One New Towns in favour of a bold act of communal architecture which conceives the town as a building and preserves the value of street life.’ Against this intention he questions ‘whether something altogether more modest and private might have been achieved, appropriate to a potentially suburban situation, without betraying social and aesthetic ideals’.

Acknowledging the argument that tall buildings were thought desirable ‘for the town to hold its own against its neighbours, the power stations’, he suggests that ‘a row of apple trees 30ft from a ground floor window could obscure the horizon’ equally effectively.  Raised streets might work as community glue, he accepts, but asks whether they wouldn’t do just as well on the ground.

This sort of Occam’s Razor of realism represents MacCormac at his best, in my view. At a time when, without apparently knowing quite why, many people are ignited with inspiration by the memory of municipal brutalism, it is salutary to recall how literally half-baked many of its ideas actually were – part way there but still missing vital ingredients and testing.

Analysis of the catalogue of jobs shown in the final pages reveals a move from standard social housing into more niche building types, such as museums and universities. No surprise there, but perhaps a sad reflection that so much talent in one generation has been diverted from areas that needed it most.


Readers' comments (5)

  • He taught me at Cambridge in our first year of our Diploma - in 1977 - 78 (The AJ has got its dates wrong). It was a truly inspirational year for which I shall be always grateful to him.

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  • chris Dyson

    I had the pleasure of working with Richard very closely over the last two years on the detail design and construction of his dining room, at the rear Heneage Street, his home for many years. I will never forget the lasting impression he made on me, his tenacity and dogged pursuit of the detail. He had a great capacity to defuse difficult situations and meetings by injecting humour and telling anecdotes.
    He was a giant in terms of his Architecture, an inspirational figure in many respects, who always ploughed his own furrow, with great energy and enthusiasm, which he did until very recently, with the beautiful publication of a book ‘Two houses in Spitalfields’ a story of the entwined lives and homes of his late partner Jocasta Innes of 30 years.
    He will be sorely missed by the architectural profession and many in the community of Spitalfields and where he lived and was loved, by family and many friends alike.

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  • Very sad to see he has left us. An inspirational man.
    Helen Brunskill

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  • I am sad and shocked to hear this news. I have memories of Richard chairing Professional Practice Part 3 seminars for Cambridge students in MJP offices the early 90s. Committed to the training and education of the profession, and sharing his knowledge. RIP

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  • A few years back along with three others, I was asked to contribute one of four prefaces to MJP’s monograph “Building Ideas.” On hearing of Richard’s death on Sunday I re-read the piece and thought I would post it again, almost un-edited but updated, because it sums up my thoughts about a man I could call a great friend and an inspiring teacher and mentor. In a massively unequal exchange I asked Richard to write the introduction to our own modest monograph two years ago and he produced a long thoughtful, critical and insightful survey of all our work. It must have been strange for him to look at our buildings where he knew how so many of the ideas in them had started in his own office.

    Two weeks ago with Robin Webster I visited him in a hospice in Bethnal Green. Unable to speak through the cruellest fate of contracting throat cancer we nevertheless communicated all sorts of funny memories (many of them connected to Isi!) and believe it or not, he was still designing, this time an extension for his own Maggies Centre in Cheltenham. Robin and I offered to stage an impromptu crit there and then but with a both a look of horror combined with an impish smile the drawings were immediately slid under the bedclothes! It was a very funny and wonderful final memory I now have of a very remarkable man.

    This is an updated version of what I wrote:

    “In a brilliant turn of phrase President Kennedy conferring honorary American citizenship on Churchill in 1963 described how in the dark days of 1940 Churchill had “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”. Without wishing to stretch the analogy too much, the 1980s were pretty dark too. British architecture was under attack from the twin forces of imported transatlantic postmodernism and home grown Prince Charles fogeyism and only the rather arid “high tech” seemed to be the answer. At that time I found myself as a very junior lecturer at Edinburgh University and by luck, Richard MacCormac had been appointed our Visiting Professor. I acted as chauffeur to and from the airport in my yellow 2CV.

    On collecting Richard, I simply had to utter the words “And what are you up to at the moment?” and then just sit back, listen and enjoy the ride. Why? Because Richard would describe the state of the evolution of a current particular project in language that was truly intoxicating. Light was “incandescent “ as it filtered through a particular species of tree; buildings “engaged” with walls; landscape was “embraced” by a window; Soanian tricks of light “vibrated” onto wall planes; college student kitchens became “social heat-beats” of residences, shops and office became “places of local and remote exchange”; just a few of the many phrases that stick in my mind. Such a rich use of the English language (and in an aside I also discovered later when I was working at Heneage Street, Richard was one the funniest raconteurs of stories I know!) seems to me almost a prerequisite to the reality that his architecture is some of the richest in the UK. And it is no accident that in compiling a list of Cambridge buildings to visit for a potential College donor, sceptical about modern architecture, it was Richard’s work that stood out above that of everyone-else.

    He was also the most complete architect I know. He could turn his hand to any type of building, size or location. He could discuss in totally refreshing terms, ideas of urban design, materials, construction, geometry, space planning, social patterns and history. He could make connections between buildings across the centuries (Wright’s prairie houses and Hardwick Hall for example) that would floor any historian or connecting his own works to those of the past, such as the reference to Schinkel sets designed for the Magic Flute in his collaboration with the artist Beleschenko at his brilliant tube station at Southwark. His continuing ability to control detailing and invent the crafting of the building is remarkable, particularly as the practice grew in size (and how can I forget spending a month trying in vain to develop a sliding folding disappearing corner window at Fitzwillian College under his tutelage?). As a writer, his essay for the Architectural Review on the evolution of the office as a type remains for me the definitive history. Similar excursions into discussions about hierarchy in suburbia have been unequalled. And on and on. The breadth of his book and the range of its contributors tell the same story.

    In the tradition of architectural family trees there are a number of notable practices that have emerged from his, Shillom Smith, Patel Taylor, Cherry Horden Lee, Wright and Wright, to name a few. Our own modest work here in Edinburgh owes a massive debt to the time I spent at Heneage Street, not to mention our 2CV dialogues. Richard remained a friend, a mentor and an inspiration and to borrow a quote from Ted Cullinan, he was. along with the late Isi Metzstein, “my architectural Dad”

    Richard Murphy

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