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Richard Burton – a major contributor to the profession

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch remembers his friend Richard Burton, who died on Sunday, aged 83

I got to know Richard Burton in the wake of the Prince of Wales’ Hampton Court speech, in which he described the Ahrends Burton and Koralek National Gallery extension design as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’. It was a foolish comment which derailed the practice for at least two years and for which the prince subsequently half-apologised. ‘I’m sorry it had to be you,’ he told Richard, who responded: ‘I’m sorry it had to be you.’

The buildings kept coming, not least Burton’s UK embassy building in Moscow, but who knows what might have happened had that Trafalgar Square project proceeded. The funny thing was, AB and K were exactly the sorts of architects the prince should have been supporting, since they had many areas of interest in common. For example, Richard was hugely interested in energy efficiency and what we would now call sustainability strategies. He was instrumental in promoting ideas about this, particularly in schools of architecture, in the 1970s – when government listened seriously to what the RIBA was saying.

Similarly, he had a profound interest in holistic health treatment, particularly in relation to evidence-based design, which proved conclusively (on the basis of masses of evidence from the USA in particular) that views of nature from hospital rooms can contribute significantly to recovery times. Ditto the role of art, sculpture and music in making humane environments that promote ‘wellness’.

In fact Richard was an enthusiastic supporter of many causes and campaigns. No doubt this stemmed partly from his Harmsworth family background (Christabel Bielenberg, née Burton, was a relative). Nothing, however extraordinary, seemed impossible – for example his News Chronicle-editing step-father, Sir Gerald Barry, organised the Festival of Britain. Meeting the festival’s design director, Hugh Casson, was a major influence in Richard becoming an architect, and heading for the AA.

A lifelong supporter of that institution (and not at all happy about how Brett Steele, the departing head, has been treated), it was where he met Peter Ahrends and Paul Koralek. They formed a long and close partnership both architectural and social, which produced a series of distinct and sophisticated buildings, from the competition-winning design for Trinity College Library, Dublin, until the practice wound down six years ago.

Above all, Richard was an enthusiast for good ideas and getting things done

Richard had a wider life in the profession as a whole, as did his partners – Peter as professor of architecture at UCL and Paul as an active Royal Academician. Richard produced a good report on education for the RIBA, and was a stalwart of the stripling architecture unit at the Arts Council. He was an enthusiastic member of the Foreign Architectural Book Society, and played an active part in the life of the village of Champéry in Switzerland, where he and Mireille Burton (plus family and friends) enjoyed/endured restoring a chalet overlooking the village, then offering delightful hospitality for many years afterwards.

Rediscovering a boyhood gift for drawing and portraiture, in later life Richard produced many commissioned paintings of homes and scenes in Champéry, and completed two years ago a series of portraits of village stalwarts. Typically, the launch of his portraits of village life was organised in grand fashion at the local sports centre, the event being used to raise funds for cancer research.

Above all, Richard was an enthusiast for good ideas and getting things done. He supported Open House, where his lovely self-designed and self-built Kentish Town home was a great favourite with visitors. It was beautifully recorded in his book, An Extra Dimension.

Susanna and I think of Richard and Mireille’s extraordinary generosity to us in the aftermath of a family tragedy, and of many happy days spent in their company in that peaceful Swiss village. Not to be forgotten.

Hooke park prototype house photos 035

Hooke park prototype house photos 035

Richard Burton (left) with John Makepeace, Frei Otto and a model of the Hooke Park prototype house

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Visited his Kentish Town house twice during Open House. The house, orientated around a courtyard, was an absolute gem of modern residential architecture.

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