Jeremy Melvin pays tribute to Richard MacCormac, whose many greenfield projects - enriched by wide cultural knowledge - were never afraid to fly in the face of fashionable demands
Sir Richard MacCormac, who died on 26 July after an 18-month battle with cancer, was an architect whose unusually wide intellectual and cultural interests enriched his profession, through writing, teaching and as an animator of ideas, but above all as a designer of buildings. Among the most notable are the Sainsbury Building, with its dreamlike effects, at Worcester College Oxford; the ethereal space of Fitzwilliam College Chapel, Cambridge; the evocative colours, light and texture of the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University; and the undulating waves of the blue-tiled roof of the training building for Cable & Wireless outside Coventry. Many of his buildings were on greenfield or campus sites, but his designs for transforming the BBC’s Broadcasting House showed how his ability to place functional requirements in a physical and historical context was just as applicable in an urban setting.
Richard was born in 1938 to doctor parents from distinguished medical families. A great uncle, Sir William MacCormac, operated in the field on the young Winston Churchill during the Boer War, and advised the Tsar on treatment for battlefield injuries. The public duty that came with professional status, and the practical benefits of applied science, helped to shape Richard as an architect. After Westminster School and National Service in the navy, he studied architecture at Cambridge and the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. These formative experiences were joined by a growing knowledge of the visual arts, literature and music, as well as a love of paradox, intellectual challenges and discussion as a means to resolve or at least advance them. His creative ideas were as likely to come from images, sensations or memories he derived from his wide-ranging cultural knowledge as from purely architectural sources.
His ability to hold sophisticated cultural concepts in relationship to prosaic functional or financial needs marked his capability as an architect and his contribution to the profession. He loved to cite the title of a Fabian pamphlet, published just as he was completing his studies in the early 1960s, Architecture: Art or Social Service? Its high-minded authors were firm in their belief in the second. Richard was equally firm that architecture was an art, but unlike some of his more publicity-seeking peers, he recognised that in being an art, and only by being an art, architecture could also perform social service.
The pamphlet’s title captured the prevailing belief of the time, that architecture was in effect the physical arm of the Welfare State, and Richard’s early career focused on social service rather than art. He worked on housing for the London Borough of Merton, but within a few years he was looking for more expressive forms of architecture and found them in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, on whose compositional principles he published an influential paper. He also designed some private houses and when one of them leaked, he was tempted to follow Wright’s advice when a client complained about a leaking roof, to ‘move your chair’. After starting a private practice in the early 1970s with Peter Jamieson, later to be joined by David Prichard, he continued to forge a name in housing, most notably with projects in Milton Keynes.
But the days of housing as the vanguard of architecture were numbered, and when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power in 1979, over. Fortunately, MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard, as the practice became known, had managed to establish a foothold in university work, first at Bristol, but memorably, in 1983 with the Sainsbury Building at Worcester College Oxford. The subtleties of this design start with its placement in the college’s historic grounds, and continue through its exploitation of natural stone but assembled in a way that is clearly artifice. Most evocative of all is its interaction with the allusions and memories of its historic precinct that Richard used to describe as a ‘dream sequence’.
He would go on to design larger buildings, with more sophisticated compositions and expressive qualities, but in this project his ability to merge the practical with the imaginative began to take off. Some commentators associated this growing expressive richness with his relationship with Jocasta Innes, which also began in the early 1980s and lasted until her death last year. He had two sons with his first wife Susan Landen, one of whom, William, survives him.
Many university buildings followed Worcester: in Cambridge for his old college, Trinity, where he would later become an honorary fellow, and Fitzwilliam; at Oxford for Wadham and Balliol, and a sequence of projects for St John’s, starting with the Garden Court in the early 1990s, a senior common room completed in 2004 and the recently completed Kendrew Quadrangle. In the late 1990s, the commission for a building to house the Ruskin Archive at Lancaster University allowed free rein to his ability to imagine an architectural analogue to Ruskin’s visual and literary work, imagined essentially as a sarcophagus surrounded by textures, colours and lighting effects that allude to Ruskinian interests like nature, memory, Venice and the experience of art.
By this time Richard’s university work would have put him in the front rank of contemporary architects, but he knew architecture had other dimensions. Rarely, for an architect of his status, he accepted the Presidency of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1991-93) and while acknowledging all but the pettiest of professional politics, he was not slow to remind his colleagues of their cultural obligations. Election to the Royal Academy in 1993 gave him further recognition and a formal outlet for his cultural activities. He was one of the prime movers in developing the RA’s Architecture Programme, and in making the Royal Academy Forum a unique framework where artists of all sorts, writers, academics, scientists and performers come together to explore themes which cut across cultural disciplines. At the same time he and Jocasta were giving shape to their interconnected pair of houses in Spitalfields, where they entertained generously, with carefully chosen guests. He recorded the story of these houses in his last book, published earlier this year.
He was also determined to show that his subtle and evocative approach to architecture could work in urban contexts, on restricted budgets and for quotidian purposes. Southwark underground station brought a mysterious blue light deep underground, easing passengers on their final descent to the platforms or preparing them to re-emerge on the surface. A small office building at Crown Place, close to Liverpool Street, showed that he could meet a standard, speculative office brief while still designing a facade of expressive depth and proportional complexity. He made a study for refurbishing Spitalfields Market to show that low-rise conservation would be as profitable as comprehensive redevelopment, and he often discussed with his friend the sociologist Richard Sennett how to treat office space as a social organism. The Phoenix Initiative in Coventry animated a series of public spaces with judiciously chosen and commissioned art works.
The commission to remodel and extend Broadcasting House, so the BBC could consolidate in one location, appeared to be an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the range of Richard’s abilities as an architect, and the synergetic effects between them. He understood the project on many levels: a visible and to some extent interactive symbol of the best sort of informed, cultivated public service; as a place to foster creative collaboration between talented and diverse individuals; as an intervention in the urban fabric that gave suitable accommodation and identity to its occupier as well as public space to its neighbourhood; and as an opportunity to find new dimensions to the ordinary in magnificent spaces complemented by powerful works of art. Much of this has been achieved, and but for a faction within the BBC and its project managers whose opposition to parts of his vision led him to resign, it might all have been.
His disappointment did not dim his creative powers. Kendrew Quadrangle, housing for British Embassy staff in Bangkok and most poignantly, a remarkable, cabinet-like centre for the innovative cancer charity Maggie’s in Cheltenham date from the last 10 years. He was working on another project for Maggie’s from his hospital bed.
During Richard’s final illness the BBC began a rapprochement. He may have died too soon to see it come to fruition, but in time his epitaph will echo Christopher Wren’s at St Paul’s Cathedral – for which he also suffered undue criticism – Si monumentum requiris, circumspice (if you seek his monument, look around you).
For Richard MacCormac, an architect who was motivated by moral as well as creative passion, by interest in other people as well as abstract ideas, and was not afraid to fly in the face of fashionable demands for icons and tall buildings, this would be most appropriate.