Comment on: CGI pioneer Alan Hayes Davidson dies, aged 58
I’m so very sorry to hear of Alan’s death. I knew him first as a first year student at Edinburgh University where I was teaching at the time. He was a very gentle giant of a guy with lovely drawing skills and an adventurous spirit which took him off to Fiji for his year out I recall. We kept in touch when he moved to London (his Chiswick flat was my occasional hotel) and his formation and nurturing of Hayes Davidson was truly remarkable. He had an amazing business sense as well as great architectural talent. He kept up a connection with Edinburgh buying a townhouse here and after his diagnosis we talked about his idea of him coming back to live here which I think I talked him out of, knowing how most of his friends and all of the buzz of the work (which he loved) was in London. On his last trip here we managed to get him up to the main living space of my new house and he was, as always, very generous in his praise. Such a lovely man.
Comment on: Chipperfield leads calls for Mac to be rebuilt
I was asked by a magazine to write a few words on the Mac rebuilding controversy. This is what I wrote:
There is a collective numb incredulity about the second, and, as it turned out, far more devastating fire at "the Mac" that we all woke up to one Saturday morning a few weeks back. The press and internet chatter has been full of contradictory rumours as to how much of the building could be saved but the engineering advice now seems to be pessimistic and that large sections will need to be pulled down. Putting aside the blame games as to how within four years such an extraordinary catastrophe could happen not once but twice (shades of Oscar Wilde) now that we know that we are looking at a rebuild rather than a repair the internet has been alive with the usual rehearsals of the arguments for or against a "restoration."
As a scholar of the work of Carlo Scarpa it has been assumed by commentators that I would be against a rebuild. Wrong. Of course my ideas are rooted in the spirit of William Morris and the SPAB manifesto and Scarpa is, in many ways I believe, the built response to Morris theories of a hundred years before. In response to Victorian "improvements" to, and faux restorations of, some of our great medieval buildings, etc Morris wrote these thrilling words "It cannot be. It has gone! They believe that we can do the same work as our forefather whereas for good and for evil we are completely changed and we cannot do the work they did. All continuity of history means after all perpetual change and it is not hard to see that we have changed with a vengeance and thereby established our claim to be the continuers of history." Morris was absolutely correct in pointing out that each generation must express itself though its artefacts (including architecture), with materials, techniques and aspirations which were inalienably theirs and to fail to do that would place the evolution of our culture at risk. He recognised that societies change and it is impossible either though economics or lack of skills or appropriate materials to build as our forefather had quite naturally done.
In the case of the Glasgow School of Art however I believe that the building is/was a complete work of art and should be thought of as indivisible; either to be completely rebuilt or never seen again. A partial restoration would be as absurd as a partial repair of a damaged piece of furniture. Moreover as we have all now realised, if we hadn't already, it is THE most important building in Scotland when seen from beyond these shores. That status makes it equivalent to the campanile in Piazza San Marco, Venice which voluntarily collapsed one morning in 1902 or the deliberate destruction of the Great Square in Warsaw by the Nazis in 1944. In both cases there was no question that both should be rebuilt and to imagine Glasgow without the Mac is to imagine Paris without the Eiffel tower or Cairo without its Pyramids.
Luckily this may be the one case that is the exception that proves Morris correct. For here we have the skills, we have the materials, we have the knowledge of the building right down to the tiniest detail (unlike for example the House for an Art Lover the construction of which, my opinion, should never have been attempted) and most importantly we have the money. Whilst some top-up must be found for "betterment," as the insurers have it, the vast majority will come from Keir's insurance policy. Of course the rebuilt building won't have the patina of age (which incidentally Mackintosh himself never saw) but come back in 100 years time and it will have aged again.... but only providing two conditions are met.
Firstly there should be no "value engineering," no restoration on the cheap. A "plasterboard Mac" would be a travesty. We need to adopt the slogan of the Venetians when rebuilding their campanile "Com' era; Dov' era (as it was, where it was). This will not be easy. And secondly the GSA management, having suffered the trauma of two fires must resist the temptation to turn the whole edifice into an untouchable museum and tourist attraction. It must return to being a fully inhabited working school of art full of the most creative students and staff. That would be the best possible outcome of this tragedy and the greatest tribute to the building's architect.
Comment on: Obituary: Richard MacCormac (1938-2014)
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”
Comment on: Lighting design pioneer Jonathan Speirs dies
For about four years in the early nineties Jonathan and I shared an office in an old shop in Blair Street Edinburgh. He had about three staff and so did I. We also shared a wonderful and very lively Italian-Scottish secrtetary Iolanda who Jonathan brought with him. It was "early days" for both of us and we enjoyed each others activities, shared each others sucesses and commisserated on any failures, although I don't recall that he had too many of those. He was always immensely charming, delightful company and totally committed to what he was doing. After out-growing Blair Street it never surpised me that he went on to create with Mark and others such an outstanding company. He had ambition and ability in spades. A lovely man.
Comment on: Tributes pour in for Isi Metzstein
Some personal memories of Isi.
I first met Isi Metzstein as most do; in a crit. His crits were legendry. He took no prisoners but all the students adored him for it all the more. His analytical powers were razor fast; he could spot the essential weaknesses of a scheme in a few seconds. Later when he hired me as a junior lecturer at Edinburgh University I quickly became his lieutenant. It was a second education for me, the cold douche of the Metzstein discourse that introduced me to the idea that architecture, as he used to argue himself, was an intellectual activity. Buildings have, or should have, their own logic which is why so much current gesture architecture left him cold or bewildered. Later we taught together at Syracuse University and during leisurely breakfasts in the campus diner he began to open up to me the private side of his life and in particular his memories of life in Germany and his evacuation, a subject he rarely wished to discuss. But he always wanted to put the record straight, to counter any myth-making.
After setting up my own practice we invited him in on a regular basis with some trepidation for crits on our own work. Timing was everything. If the project wasn’t started he might just design it for you; if it was too far advanced he would point out the faults all the same but which you knew were too late to correct. There were moments, such as when he said in a really loud voice “Muff (his nickname for me), this is the worst building you’ve ever designed” so that everyone in the office could hear! (It never got built). But his influence on me has been massive. Indeed subliminally I find myself standing back, looking at a plan or a section and thinking “what would Isi think?”
Every Christmas he and Dany played Santa at our Christmas dinner and he came on a number of trips with us to Verona, Eichstatt, Dublin, etc. Despite increasing immobility he was always the last to bed, and over a Macallan or two discussion became passionate over what we had seen that day. It was just so much fun to have him with us and deepen our insights.
While many of his buildings have been treated shamefully, a retrospective exhibition at the Lighthouse and the book by Jonny Roger won his approval. Indeed the exhibition in Glasgow coincided with another on Spence held simultaneously in Edinburgh. In the same period Spence who of course had moved to London had built ten times the number of buildings and yet visiting the two exhibitions by these two giant of Scottish architecture I was left in no doubt as to who was the more original, the more daring and the more profound.
His witticisms are many and legendary. After he broke his leg a couple of years ago I went across to Glasgow a few times during a slow recovery. On one occasion he had graduated to a zimmer frame. Dany showed me into the living room. Then the door opened. Slowly in came zimmer followed by Isi and with a look of thunder on his face and in a low slow voice said , “Yes…..half man….half shopping trolley!”
Such wonderful memories and such an impossible void to fill. I and many others will miss him terribly.