Peter Davey pays tribute to Richard MacCormac’s remarkable architectural intelligence
Richard MacCormac has died aged 75, and with him has gone a remarkable architectural intelligence. The variety of his work was awe-inspiring, ranging from a busy London underground station to quiet university buildings and extensions to national museums.
He first came to wide attention as a member of a group working within Merton architect’s department exploring the then innovatory public-housing concept of low-rise high-density. Much was expected of the young architect with his Cambridge double first, and he did not disappoint. For a start, he could write (an unusual talent in a good designer), and throughout his career he contributed occasional articles to architectural periodicals (including this one) that explored the role of architecture and architects in a complex modern society.
He had no very obvious personal architectural style, unlike many of his contemporaries such as High-Tech Norman Foster or some of the neo-Classicists like Quinlan Terry. Instead, he responded to history and context and he had some wonderful contexts to respond to, particularly in the universities. Of course, like any artist, he was influenced by others. Important among these were architects as different as Frank Lloyd Wright, from whom Richard learned much about massing and route, and John Soane whose experiments with daylighting can be seen as inspirations for some of Richard’s own inventive uses of light from above.
One dramatic instance of his preoccupation with light is to be found at the Southwark tube station, where you descend as if down a burrow to a blue luminous pool. Instead of being one of the grim mouths of hell, this entrance to London’s metro is magical and offers excitement rather than the usual beige, black and dreary tedium.
Light was only one of the many materials that MacCormac assembled with sensitivity and understanding, though none was as ephemeral. He welcomed new technologies and techniques, and was always quick to see how the new could be united with the well-tried. He had a flair for showmanship, which he indulged on special occasions such as the BBC headquarters in London, boldly intended to link the existing ’30s Art Deco BBC building to John Nash’s All Souls. Sadly, this last project, which had promised to crown Richard’s career, was severely compromised by BBC budget cuts, so architect and client fell out, something that had never happened to Richard before.
In fact, clients spoke highly of the experience of working with him, and the ways in which he used geometry, vision and intelligence to help them to overcome organisational difficulties. In his domestic life, after an early marriage to Susan Landen, he made a partnership arrangement with colourist and highly successful author Jocasta Innes, who bought the very run-down house next door to his in 18th-century Spitalfields. He joined the two houses, but not obviously (the connection is through a secret door posing as a fireplace). The courtyard, like the houses, is busy with extraordinary things: plants of mysterious kinds, as well as the giant wisteria round the door, memorabilia in stone and wood, and simply things that took Richard’s and Jocasta’s fancy. Once inside, transformatory magic continues with Jocasta’s colour schemes, sonorous and deep, setting off Richard’s rigorous geometry and lighting: 18th and 20th centuries combine in unexpected harmonies.
Richard said that ‘she influenced me more than I influenced her’, and he and Jocasta worked together for a while, for instance designing exhibitions at Tate Britain and Tate Modern. But after this initial period, they did not so much work together as, in Richard’s words, ‘influence each other tangentially’.
Richard was never afraid to use metaphor in his architectural designs, unlike most of his contemporaries. For example, the Ruskin Library for Lancaster University combines several of his passions, with the approach between dark green seaweed-slime coloured walls, the beautifully organised study room three storeys high, made with cabinetwork worthy of a Victorian savant. The exterior is in striped dark grey and white masonry, reminiscent of Siena cathedral, while the views over Morecambe Bay and its treacherous sands from the study room evoke those of the lagoon and its dangerous mud banks from the campanile of St Mark’s.
Wherever possible within a budget, MacCormac tried to introduce work with artist craftsmen, a collaboration particularly well seen in the glass screens for St John’s College Oxford by Alexander Beleschenko, where shimmering glass veils give the spaces ethereal qualities.
Surprisingly, amid a very heavy and demanding workload, Richard found time for other interests: his love of sporty two-seaters was legendary, as was his affection for his yawl which he sailed in home waters regularly (though usually without Jocasta, who could see little point in such hearty amusements).
An artist, craftsman and scholar (he could, for instance, identify and place even the most obscure Palladian villas from their ground plans alone), Richard was widely respected within the profession, and was honoured with the presidency of the RIBA from 1991 to 1993. His attempts to make the Royal Institute a centre for serious study of architecture in its many dimensions rather than a business swap-shop were not entirely successful, but were widely discussed, and still have some effects even now. Knighted in 2001, he was also a Royal Academician, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
But such honours were not the man. He was the most delightful companion, always ready to laugh at the follies of the pretentious or to praise undiscovered talent. He will be remembered for many things: his essays; his good humour; his Tennysonian love for Jocasta; his insights and teaching (he was visiting professor at both Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities and several others). But most of all, he will be remembered for what he built.
Jocasta died of cancer not many months before Richard succumbed to the same malady, bringing to an end an idyllic relationship. Yet Richard’s laughter still resonates in the mind.
The opening image shows the secret fireplace door that led from MacCormac’s Spitalfields residence into that of his partner, Jocasta Innes