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Architects are shaped by the inside story of their lives

Architects’ legacies are a combination of personal memories and built history, writes Paul Finch

Too many good people from the world of architecture have left us this year. January saw the premature death of Kathryn Findlay, and now Paul Katz of KPF has passed on, aged only 57. I knew both of them, and had the pleasure of discussing architecture and life with them on various occasions over the years.

Particularly poignant for me was the news of Paul Katz’s death, because only a few weeks earlier I had spent time with him in Sydney, where we travelled after the World Architecture Festival, to take part in a discussion event about the city’s future. An afternoon we spent with David Tregoning, the former head of Woods Bagot, sailing on his yacht round Sydney harbour, will now be inextricably linked with later sad news.

Others who have died this year lived to a reasonable age, for example: Brian Henderson, the former YRM chairman; Bryan Jefferson, the former RIBA president and government adviser; Peter Hall, co-creator of Non-Plan and doyen of planning historians and practitioners; David Mackay of Martorell Bohigas Mackay, who transformed for the better the city of Barcelona when it staged the 1992 Olympics; and Richard MacCormac, still designing and provoking, and with much left to offer.

The Henderson Effect was the enlivening of any social occasion with a mixture of bonhomie, generosity, wit and whatever drinks might be readily available. He did things in style: when Cedric Price died, Brian invited a handful of people to join him in the Groucho Club to toast CP in style. This was on the day of the funeral, but typically Brian thought we should have the celebration before the event rather than (or as well as) after.

We arrived slightly nervous about the logistics of getting to the funeral on time, given the predictable generosity of our host. We need not have worried. Splendid food and drink greeted us on our arrival, and just as we started thinking about taxis we were instructed to take our seats in the chauffeured limousines ordered for the occasion…

Richard MacCormac was also a generous host, though that could be in the context of his local East End pub or a grand restaurant. My last lunch with him was in the Dickensian surroundings of the George & Vulture in the City of London, where Mr Pickwick entertained his companions.

Thinking about it, I suppose many of my talks with architects have been over a lunch table rather than in the context of a design meeting, unless you include design reviews, a slightly different matter.

It is always fascinating to hear the inside stories of people and projects, and both Brian and Richard had plenty of those. It made you realise the power and fallibility of memory in describing the recent histories of architecture – the individual memory often a single-point perspective, throwing a sometimes intriguing light on the story of a building. These memories are often lost because they were not considered suitable for public consumption at the time, and in the end fade out, occasionally revived when a design team stages a reunion.

One might think of buildings themselves as memories, or memory boxes, encapsulating the desires, hopes, fears and ambitions of all who helped create them, synthesised by the architect, if indeed the building is a piece of architecture. The coincidence of the physical and the metaphorical was very powerful in the work of someone like MacCormac, and brings to mind the first line of a song, words by Clive James: ‘Touch has a memory, unlike the other senses…’

Knowing all those architects, as well as their architecture, has been a particular privilege.

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