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David Mackay (1933-2014)

Peter Buchanan pays tribute to the architect-planner who revivified Barcelona with Oriol Bohigas and Josep Martorell

David Mackay, who has died aged 80, was a principal of MBM (Martorell Bohigas Mackay), the Barcelona architectural and urban design office, among the most influential European practices of the last 50 years. In their various roles, as practitioners, writer-historian-thinkers, teachers and encouragers of talent, all three principals played a key role in making Barcelona so widely admired, both for its exemplary urban regeneration and as a hotbed of architectural talent.

Their success in that city led to work elsewhere. While Oriol Bohigas is the best known of the trio, particularly for his seminal role spearheading Barcelona’s regeneration as its Director of Planning 1980-84, his success in such roles was made possible by the unstinting support of Mackay and Josep Martorell. The relationship between the three was exceptionally close and, although they split supervisory roles geographically (Mackay being responsible for work in the more northern parts of Europe), design was always undertaken together as a team.

Of Irish lineage, Mackay was born in Sussex and studied architecture at the Polytechnic of North London. While there he met and married his wife Roser, an exile from Franco’s Spain. Despite her reluctance, they went to Barcelona in the late 1950s where he found part-time work with Martorell and Bohigas. Within four years MBM was formed with him as full partner with the two older architects. Although always open to new ideas, much of their work displays some of the austere frugality typical of traditional Catalan architecture − to which the extravagant buildings of the Modernista period are such a conspicuous exception. Hence MBM could be seen as Regionalists. Other characteristics are a greater attention to programme than is typical in Spain and the reiteration of certain themes, such as houses whose spaces spiralled up within a cubic envelope. There are the occasional more sculptural projects, such as the Casa Canovelles (AR May 1986), the Pavilion of the Future (with engineer Peter Rice) for the 1992 Seville Expo and the in-progress Barcelona Design Museum.

Barcelona Deisgn Museum by MBM Arquitectes

Barcelona Deisgn Museum by MBM Arquitectes, opening in December of this year

Although committed Modernists as architects, MBM followed the Italian Neo-Rationalists, among others, in its criticism of modern urbanism, particularly the indifference to context and for not defining public spaces as contained streets and plazas. Such ideas informed Bohigas’s strategy when regenerating Barcelona as Director of Planning. He also rejected modern planning’s obsessions with zoning, disruptive freeways and large-scale, impracticable masterplans. Instead, keeping broad goals in mind, he pursued a project-by-project approach, seizing implementable opportunities where he could to gather a snowballing momentum that slowly tied together the new interventions, as well as new and existing, into a larger whole. But for all the success and excitement of Bohigas’s transformation of Barcelona, which climaxed in the 1992 Olympics and its associated facilities, his stint as Director of Planning was frustrating for MBM which had (to avoid conflicts of interest) to forgo practice in their home city during the boom times. Hence Bohigas’s stepping down in time for MBM to win the commissions to masterplan the Olympic Village and build some of its housing.

Now known as Nova Icària, what was the Olympic Village (residential accommodation for athletes) is on what had been disused industrial land east of the city centre and between Cerdà’s extension of the city and the sea. Creating also a new beach front and harbour, it forms a seamless extension of the city and reintroduced it to the sea it had turned its back on. The masterplan did so by extending the characteristic square blocks of the Cerdà grid as a pedestrian network but amalgamating three of these into elongated blocks for more efficient vehicular circulation. These super-blocks are edged by blocks that continue Barcelona’s contained streets, but within the super-blocks, housing is allowed to fragment into more modern typologies − a very successful hybrid of modernity and tradition, as endorsed by Mackay and his wife moving in.

The widely acclaimed triumph of Barcelona’s transformation and Nova Icària brought MBM architectural and urban design commissions from many parts of the world, particularly in Italy as well as Spain for both of which it designed and executed numerous schemes, but also as far afield as Mexico (a fine large resort hotel) and Brazil. Projects for the UK overseen by Mackay include masterplans for Bexhill and Hastings and a more comprehensive strategy and masterplan to renovate Plymouth, colloquially known as ‘The Mackay Vision’. Like Bohigas and Martorell, Mackay wrote books as well as articles, his last two being A Life in Cities: An Architectural Autobiography (2009) and On Life and Architecture (2013).

When I worked on the AR, Mackay gave significant assistance. He alerted the editors to the new plazas and parks programme that initiated the regeneration of Barcelona, and which were published in AR June 1984. This led on to the special issues devoted to contemporary Spanish architecture, including AR May 1986 and July 1990, which are widely acknowledged as bringing this work to worldwide attention. The help and hospitality of this widely respected and liked architect, who was as open-mindedly alert to contemporary developments as he was knowledgeable about history, was much appreciated.

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