Richard MacCormac made architecture seem like an art, a science and a craft all at once, says Rory Olcayto
Each time I met Richard MacCormac, who died last week, I was struck by the fluency of his language, his engaging manner and how he made architecture seem like an art, a science and a craft all at once. I have several vivid memories of our conversations. In 2009, for example, he explained to me in the grounds of the British Embassy in Bangkok that the structural rhythm of the staff accommodation he had designed there could be read as a musical score, with living space inserted between structural ‘beats’.
Translation – whether from one art form to another, or within the field of architecture itself, was MacCormac’s ‘thing’ – the ever-present idea within all his other ideas.
A couple of years after our Bangkok trip I attended a talk he gave at the Soane Museum – ‘Translating Soane’ – wherein he drew upon John Soane’s achievements in that remarkable house and recounted how he sought to explore them in his own work, suggesting: ‘Architecture, the art of invention, can cross historical and stylistic boundaries to engage with the past without losing the authenticity of the present.’
His talk was followed by a candlelit tour of the museum, with MacCormac commenting on details I would otherwise have overlooked.
There was another occasion when the whole of the AJ enjoyed MacCormac’s hospitality – he took our team sailing in July 2011 on his 1906-built, 42-foot oyster smack, which he kept moored in Brightlingsea. It was a special day, sunny, but cold, but warmed up thoroughly by MacCormac’s ruddy charm.
I met him most recently, and for the last time, in January this year, in his wonderful house just off Brick Lane, shortly after an operation to rebuild his vocal chords following a bout of cancer. We spoke about Spitalfields Market, of which MacCormac was the master planner in the 1980s until, in his words, ‘they got shot of me in the early 90s’. He wanted to discuss the relative merits of the Norman Foster scheme which superceded his own design and which, he noted, ‘does incorporate some of the basic urban interventions of my proposal and to some extent realises the proposition of combining what I called “local” and “foreign” transactions, meaning to say that the office buildings incorporate cafes and shops at ground level and the local market is part of the scheme’.
We walked, very slowly, around it and, as I had come to expect, with his keen eye and thoughtful mind he made the tour one to savour. I knew then he was close to the end and I felt privileged to be able to listen to him once more. The BBC came up, of course – it always did when we met – and I realised he was unlikely ever to feel good about what happened on that complex project, which, like Spitalfields, he was not given the chance to see through to completion. So when Alan Yentob called the AJ this week to say MacCormac had made three visits in his final months to the building he put so much of his energy into, there was little to do except admire the man’s bravery. That the completed project by Sheppard Robson is not quite the one MacCormac himself had envisaged matters not: his reputation as one of Britain’s best post-war architects remains intact.