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Isi Metzstein (1928-2012)

Isi Metzstein died on 11 January after a long illness

Isi Metzstein, a partner in one of the greatest British post war architectural firms has died at the age of 83 after a long illness. Intellectually and ethically rigorous, he was always challenging and his warm engagement with everyone he met was often filtered through a cloud of black dog cynicism. For this his friends and students loved him deeply and many will remember, ruefully or gleefully, his lacerating wit which burst the bubble of any hubris he encountered, irrespective of status. Through his buildings, teaching and discourse, he will remain a seminal influence on British architecture. While he travelled widely, he described himself as Glaswegian by adoption, and inculcated in his work and outlook, all that was best about that vibrant city.

Born in Berlin in1928, Isi came to Britain alone at eleven with the kindertransport but was later reunited with his family. Apprenticed to Gillespie Kidd and Coia (GK&C), he joined the part-time evening course at the Glasgow School of Art, where he met Andy MacMillan and a creative partnership was forged later which went on to flourish in the GK&C atelier.

Jack Coia, then surviving partner at GK&C, was regularly commissioned to design a series of Catholic churches. With a change of ethos post war, Coia ceded much of the design control to the young Isi and Andy. An early project for St Paul’s Church in Glenrothes (1957) is a modest building of simple form and materials, yet exhibits an extraordinary quality of light and monumental presence which owed much to Le Corbusier. The sixteen churches that followed formed a distinctive body of work. Combining functional requirements with resonant symbolism, they were the perfect vehicle for developing an architectural philosophy, which reached its most mature expression in the design for St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross.

Isi would say this work should be attributed to GK&C rather than to any individual and Jack reinforced that sentiment when he asked that his 1969 RIBA Gold Medal should be shared with Isi and Andy. Other projects included schools, housing and higher educational buildings in Hull, Oxford and Cambridge. Noted for their rational plans, rich in spatial relationships, and intergrated structure and section, the buildings are always architecturally inventive. Yet they also respond to wider human experience. Opportunities afforded by thick-skinned masonry buildings were sensitively exploited through extraordinary daylighting and entrance sequences, all expressed with a moving humanity.

Sadly, neither Isi nor Andy was astute in business and their practice folded in the 1980s. Isi then concentrated on a teaching career, initially (and most memorably) at the Mackintosh, but also at the AA and finally as Professor of Architecture at Edinburgh University. His pedagogical method was Socratic, enlivened by a turn of phrase akin to that of a sixth Marx brother.

He was honoured with an OBE, and received the Royal Scottish Academy Gold Medal (1975), the RIAS Lifetime Achievement Award 2008 (with MacMillan), an Honorary RIBA Fellowship and the RIBA Annie Spink Prize for Education 2008 (with MacMillan).

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