Raymund Ryan remembers Kathryn Findlay (1953-2014) whose projects, although few in number, display a remarkable curiosity and playfulness
Kathryn Findlay, who passed away on 10 January, was an architect of unusual talent and character. Trained at the Architectural Association in the halcyon 1970s, Findlay moved to Tokyo where she worked for Arata Isozaki before creating Ushida Findlay Partnership with her then husband, Eisaku Ushida, in 1986. Findlay’s buildings in Japan, and in Britain since relocating to London at the cusp of the millennium, are not many in number yet they are marked by quality and by a sense of invention; they continue to surprise with their investigation of form and structure and their irrepressible playfulness.
If Tokyo and London were for Findlay two important poles of professional activity, Qatar was a close-run third. She designed two extraordinary villa projects in that small Gulf nation. One was completed but remains unpublished (it is however visible on Google Earth); the other stalled in mid-construction and was eventually sacrificed for urban infrastructure demands. In 2004, Findlay completed an entire floor of Madrid’s Hotel Puerta América. Irrespective of such cosmopolitan adventures, Findlay the woman remained unmistakably Scottish.
The Japanese work is noteworthy for its experiments with form and morphology, for an ability to create fluid, organic worlds-within-worlds on constricted urban sites. Such is the case with Truss Wall House (Tokyo, 1993) and Soft and Hairy House (Tokyo, 1994). Next to a suburban railway line, Truss Wall House consists of a white porous monolith that maintains a contiguous skin of floor, wall, ceiling, furniture elements and recesses for indirect light. In plan, Soft and Hairy House is almost literally a portrait of the house’s occupants, two outstretched parents with a baby pavilion, like a space-age hammam, in-between.
These otherworldly inventions appeared to an international audience through such publications as the 1997 Gili monograph. They should not be confused with more recent experiments in blob or computer-generated architecture. Yes there are shared interests in the exploration of volume and surface; Ushida Findlay’s work in the 1990s was however grounded in human perception and human experience. These structures reveal themselves as the alert visitor moves through the unusual architectural space, moving up and down, and in and out. There is also a characteristic sense of humour, as with the courtyard tiles at Truss Wall House made from pink balloons filled with mortar.
There are of course echoes in Findlay’s work of the AA’s bravura design culture from the 1970s (her mentors at the AA included Peter Cook and Leon van Schaik). There is some affinity with precedents by architects as different (and, indeed, as independent) as Frederick Kiesler and Bruce Goff, Kiesler’s manipulation of curved enclosures, for instance, and Goff’s idiosyncratic incorporation of found material. Attributable perhaps to some Scottish or Celtic gene, there is also the game of nature and fabrication and narrative, in cahoots. If so, Findlay belongs to a (Caledonian Japanese?) family tree that inevitably includes Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Back in the UK, Findlay built a loft and retail building for Glasgow’s year as City of Architecture and Design in 1999. She then won a competition to rethink the English country house for the 21st century. That radical, star-shaped proposal for Cheshire was never realised yet led directly to commissions in Qatar, one of which played a star role in the UK Pavilion at the 2004 Venice Biennale. Around this time, Findlay’s practice hit severe financial difficulties. Nevertheless she survived to come back with two unique pool houses in almost absurdly idyllic English countryside. These later volumes are lean and irregular structures roofed in asymmetrical expanses of a material not normally considered avant-garde: thatch.
Findlay thrived on such fusion of engineering and arcadia, the logical and the sensory. For the ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower, London’s controversial Olympic landmark, she collaborated with Cecil Balmond and Anish Kapoor to refine such key architectural elements as the viewing platform and the entryway. In 2011, Ushida Findlay, with Simpson & Brown Architects, won the competition to reconfigure York Art Gallery. Scheduled for completion in 2016, the project is, according to the architects, ‘inspired by the serendipitous detailing and haphazardry of building materials’ observed in York and promises to reveal a ‘secret gallery’ long removed from public view. Such distinctive strategies signal Findlay’s unorthodox eye and her attitude to technology, construction and space.
As well as these design projects across an eclectic spectrum, Findlay was a frequent teacher, lecturer, and competition juror. In the 1990s she was the first woman and the first foreigner in many years to teach at Tokyo University. She was subsequently appointed Professor of Architecture and Environment at the University of Dundee. In 2013 her unique contributions to architectural culture were recognised with an honorary fellowship from the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS). She is furthermore the recipient of the 2014 Jane Drew Prize, decided by its jury on the very day Findlay passed away. She thus joins previous honorees Zaha Hadid and Eva Jiricna ‘for her outstanding contribution to the status of women in architecture’.
Diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2013, Kathryn Findlay remained an architect of remarkable optimism, intellectual curiosity and generosity of spirit.